Is the US Contributing to Democracy?

(I was to have been in Qatar this week, to participate in the Doha Debates. The topic was an intriguing one: “This House believes that George W Bush has kicked open the door to democracy in the Middle East.” A bout of bronchitis, however, kept me from flying, and so I will use this column to outline my views on this question.)

Despite the Bush Administration’s repeated claims to have “kicked open the door of democracy in the Middle East,” reality suggests otherwise. To make their case, the Administration and its advocates are fond of citing a litany of “successes.” Beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq, then moving to Palestine, Lebanon, and recent developments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the White House spins a tale of “freedom on the march.” Their implied argument, of course, is that US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Administration’s advocacy for democracy are the causal factors that have unleashed this “democracy wave” in the broader Middle East.

The argument is wrong in both its postulates and its conclusions. While it is true that the US ended Taliban rule in Kabul and removed the Baath regime in Baghdad, and organized elections in both countries, it is far too soon to declare success in either case. It would be a mistake to declare Afghanistan and Iraq democracies.

In the same week that the President was delivering his “Freedom on the March” speech at the National Defense University, disturbing articles on Afghanistan appeared in two major newspapers. One detailed concerns that the country is devolving into a “narco state” with about 60% of its income derived from heroine and opium. The other article detailed the deteriorating quality of life in warlord-led provinces and concluded quoting villagers pining for a return of the Taliban!

Iraq has had an election, but still has no government, with national consensus eluding sect and ethnic factions. An election, by itself, does not create democracy or implant a democratic culture. And both the Iraqis and the US are learning this lesson the hard way.

As premature as it is, therefore, to declare both Afghanistan and Iraq “missions accomplished,” it is grossly unfair to even suggest that the Palestinian elections or the demonstrations in Beirut were somehow US-inspired (despite what a few fawning sycophants might say). The Palestinian election was prompted by the death of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority’s need to legitimize a new leadership. And the demonstrations in Beirut were an expression of collective outrage over the shocking assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Mahmoud Abbas is the new Palestinian president, but the Israeli occupation authorities continue to confiscate land, announce new settlement construction, and deny fundamental rights to millions of Palestinians–”not quite “freedom on the march.” Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Syria’s long overdue departure is underway, but this doesn’t solve Lebanon’s deeper problems. Lebanon needs a new “National Pact” and expansion of democracy to enfranchise the disenfranchised. Sadly, however, this kind of real democratic reform is not yet on the country’s agenda.

The “kifaya” movement in Egypt is purely homegrown, and has been brewing for years, as have the movements toward expanding citizen participation in several gulf countries. Some have criticized these efforts as half steps, but they are steps, and they have been developing for over a decade now.

So while the Administration, in order to reverse declining US public support for the war in Iraq, needs to advance the claim that it is their efforts that are bringing democracy to the Middle East, their argument simply doesn’t hold up.

If anything, US actions in the past four years have done damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in the Arab World. In response to growing anti-American sentiment, some countries, close to the US, have cracked down on free expression. And US behavior toward detainees in Abu Ghraib, Guantanomo, and here at home, have been so appalling, as to undercut US claims to leadership in the defense of human rights.

It is this that disturbs me most. Because I believe that the American experience in expanding democracy and promoting human rights holds important lessons for the world, the Administration has, in effect, and despite its rhetoric, “taken itself out of the game.” Some governments now justify their human rights abuses by pointing to similar US practices. And some reformers in the Arab World say they fear the US’s embrace since it might harm their efforts.

All this having been said, it is good that the Administration is speaking of democracy and reform. But it is important that they have credibility when they do so. We cannot open the door to democracy. People must do that for themselves. But if we are a credible and consistent partner in the pursuit of justice and reform, then we can make a contribution.