Between Democracy and Stability in the Middle East: Defining Priorities

Remarks to the Weinberg Founders Conference

Washington Institute for Near East Policy

October 17, 2004



            Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here with my fellow panelists and with all of you to discuss one of the most important and vexing challenges confronting U.S. national security today.  How do we balance two conflicting imperatives: the need to preserve the short-term stability of Arab regimes that have been friendly—or at least not explicitly and intractably hostile—to the United States, and the need to promote a deeper, more organic stability in the region through democratic reform?

            The problem is stark.  The Arab world is the only major region in the world that does not have a single democracy.  If we look at the Middle East in general, only Israel and Turkey are democracies.  Of the sixteen Arab states, only one—Lebanon—has ever been a democracy, and only a few could even be described today as semi-democratic.  While the rest of the world has been moving forward toward democracy and greater freedom over the past three remarkable decades, the Arab world has remained politically stagnant.  In fact, the Arab region is also the only one where the average Freedom House rating of political rights and civil liberties is actually worse today than it was in 1974.

            There is a serious problem with the nature of governance in the Middle East. However, the source of the problem is not Islam as such.  Forty-three countries in the world clearly have a Muslim majority.  The 27 of these outside the Arab world have an average freedom score that is almost an entire point better, on the seven-point Freedom House scale, than the Arab states.  A quarter of those 27 (seven) are democracies.  In several cases, like Indonesia and Mali, they are developing democracy.  And democracy is visibly deepening in Turkey under a government led by a party that could be called in its orientation Islamic-democratic. 

            The growing body of public opinion survey evidence shows that Muslims desire democracy pretty much to the same degree that people of other faiths do, particularly when we control for education and income.  That is clearly the case in Africa and Central Asia.  Even in the Arab world, the early evidence of Mark Tessler, who is doing extensive polling on these matters, shows that people in the region value democracy, and that there is not much relationship between religious attachment and support for democracy.

These popular orientations among Muslims in the world correspond with the thinking of increasingly outspoken moderate Muslim intellectuals, who are making the case either for a liberal interpretation of Islam or for a broader liberal view that de-emphasizes the literal meaning of sacred Islamic texts while stressing the larger compatibility between the overall moral teachings of Islam and the nature of democracy as a system of government based on such principles as accountability, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.[1]  Islam is undergoing a kind of reformation now, and there is growing momentum among Muslim religious thinkers for a separation of mosque and state.

Significantly, Arab thinkers, scholars, and civil society activists are themselves challenging the democracy and freedom deficit that pervades the Arab world.  The Arab authors of the first Arab Human Development Report—an extraordinary document published by the UNDP in 2002—recognize that the global wave of democratization “has barely reached the Arab states.  This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.”[2]  It was this same broad team of Arab specialists who wrote these words about the reform imperative:

There can be no real prospects for reforming the system of governance, or for truly liberating human capabilities, in the absence of comprehensive political representation in effective legislatures based on free, honest, efficient and regular elections.  If the people’s preferences are to be properly expressed and their interests properly protected, governance must become truly representative and fully accountable.[3]

I expect the next Arab Human Development Report will be even more emphatic in pressing the case for democratic reform.

A growing number of Arab intellectuals, journalists, civic activists, and even some government officials, as well as numerous foreign observers of the region, are becoming convinced that the center cannot hold without democratizing political reform.  The old cyclical games of tactical liberalization—opening today and repressing tomorrow—have run their course.  Burgeoning populations—whose demographic profiles are tilted dramatically toward the young—are deeply frustrated by the pervasive economic stagnation, abuse of power, and social injustice.  They are also better informed—or at least more independently informed—about what is happening in the world than they used to be, and better able to organize outside government control.  And they are not going to sit back and take it any more: that is one message of September 11.  To the extent that the regimes of the Arab world do not reform politically and economically—so that they become more open, dynamic, just, and democratic—they will erupt in one form or another over the coming years.  What Tom Friedman calls the “global supply chain” of suicide bombers is one form of eruption. The wave of venomous anti-Americanism is another. The rising tide of terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia is another.  Sclerotic regimes that cannot generate jobs and hope at a faster rate than the population is growing cannot persist indefinitely.  And the market-oriented economic reforms necessary to unleash economic growth are unlikely to occur without democratic change, because unless governments have much greater political legitimacy, they will not have the nerve, and the autonomy from the decades-long accumulation of vested interests, to take bold and difficult steps. There is a demographic time bomb ticking in the Middle East, and it is going to sweep away a lot of Western-leaning regimes sooner or later unless real reform gets going.

Of course, later could be a long time later.  I concede that.  Knowing that—knowing how efficient, cunning, and ruthless is the state security apparatus in many of these countries; knowing the opportunism and insecurity of middle-class opposition groups that do not want to rock the boat; understanding that change always carries short-term risks—American policy makers have tended to opt for the devil they know and leave the longer-term future to the next Administration.  That is why President Bush’s speech of November 6 to the National Endowment for Democracy, and his subsequent statements calling for a fundamental reorientation of American policy in the Middle East, were so visionary and courageous.  Conceptually, the call for a broad shift in policy toward promoting democracy in the Middle East is bold and long overdue.

Normatively and conceptually, we are at a historic juncture, where moral imperatives—to support human rights and promote peaceful democratic change—and security imperatives converge as never before.  After September 11, the political transformation of Middle Eastern regimes, toward greater freedom, responsiveness, transparency, accountability, and participation—and therefore a real capacity to achieve broad-based human development—has become not just a moral imperative but a necessary foundation for the security of Western democracies as well.  Creating a new climate in the region that is much less conducive to hatred and terrorism requires a sweeping improvement in the character and quality of governance

            The question is, how do we do promote these changes in such a way that the search for an Arab Kerensky does not yield an Islamist Lenin instead?

            I want to take my remaining time to offer some specific policy suggestions.

            First, the tone and style of our approach is absolutely vital.  Today in the Arab world, the United States is virtually radioactive; Arab democrats who come too close to it risk being contaminated and burned.  The people of the Arab world profoundly suspect our motives.  They think we are only in Iraq for the oil.  And it is hard to dissuade them, when the only building we protected as Baghdad was being systematically looted in April of last year was the oil ministry.  They think we seek long-term imperial domination in the region, and it is hard to dissuade them when we do not renounce any intention of seeking permanent military bases in Iraq.  They think we only want democracy when it produces governments friendly to the United States.  And it is hard to dissuade them from that as well when we have taken no practical steps to follow up on the President’s bold speeches, or to establish a dialogue with more moderate Islamists in the region.

            We must promote democracy in the Middle East.  But we cannot do it rapidly, we cannot do it purely on our terms, and we certainly cannot do it alone.  It has always been the case that success in this endeavor would require close coordination with our European allies. But in the wake of the mistakes and unilateralism of this Administration, I think we really have no chance of fostering democratic change in the region without a truly transatlantic strategy that offers the region real hope of economic as well as political progress.  It is still the case that if freedom is to advance in the world, the United States must lead.  But sometimes, we must lead more subtly, from behind, if we are to be effective.

            In fact, we need unprecedented cooperation at three levels to promote democratic change in the Middle East: first, between Europe and the United States (as well as Canada and other democratic allies); second, between the governments and non-governmental organizations of our democracies; and third between this new transatlantic alliance and reform-minded governmental and non-governmental actors in the Middle East.

            A group of European and American policy specialists, meeting over several months under the auspices of the German Marshall Fund, has recently laid out what we consider to be a viable transatlantic strategy for promoting democracy and human development in the Middle East.  Released as Istanbul Paper Number 1 just in advance of the last NATO summit, it can be found at  Let me share with you some of our key arguments.

            Our strategy is based on five principles:

1. Regional Ownership.  Democratization and human development in the region must spring from indigenous roots.   Western democracies should not seek to impose any formula for democratic change.  But they can and must help from the outside – morally, politically, and materially.


2.  Engaging Rulers and Ruled.  In identifying the “owners” and partners for reform, the West cannot only look to state officials, though they are important.  We need to reach out directly to civil society, and thus engage both rulers and ruled.


3.  Islam and Democracy.  We reject the argument that there is some intrinsic incompatibility between Islam and democracy, or that the peoples of the region are incapable of democratic governance or do not want the same rights that are taken for granted in most other parts of the world.   And I have already explained why.


4.  Tailored Policies.  Each country in the region is unique with its own history, problems and opportunities.  Each country should be encouraged to come up with its own national reform plan for democratic change, resulting from an open negotiation between the government, the political opposition, and civil society.   The negotiation of a gradual, phased, mutually agreed-upon timetable and formula for democratic change can allow time for moderates to organize politically and for a greater plurality of forces in civil society to flower, thereby facilitating a democratic transition that is not captured by radical Islamists.


5.  Filling The Credibility Gap.  Western governments need to overcome their past track records of inconsistency and double standards.  The burden is on our own governments and societies to demonstrate that we are serious about promoting genuine democratic change, and are willing to sustain a serious commitment even in the face of short-term risks and costs. 


Among the specific policy courses we recommend are the following six:


  1. The transatlantic democracies should do more to link their economic assistance directly to political reform and good governance.  This could build on the incentive-based approaches of the Millenium Challenge Account and the EU’s Barcelona process, so that overseas assistance provides tangible benefits for countries that are making real progress on political and economic liberalization.


  1. Benchmarks for actual behavior also need to be extended to other areas of cooperation, such as trade liberalization, debt relief, and symbolic honors such as high-level state visits.  Middle Eastern governments that are not serious about reform should know that they will not benefit in the same way that reformers will.


  1. The West must reexamine its relationships with the region’s security institutions.  The US and Europe should use their influence with friendly military and intelligence establishments to foster, not impede, democratic change, to terminate repression against democratic forces, and to end the use of torture.


  1. The Western democracies should exhibit more visible, consistent, and effective solidarity with democrats and human rights activists in the region who are under threat or in detention.  Our leaders and diplomats should constantly lend them moral and political support, and press concerns about their safety and freedom with the governments of the region.  We should maintain a comprehensive list of political prisoners in the region.


  1. The Western democracies should increase very substantially their support for civil society and political actors and institutions working to advance democracy within these societies.  We recommend a several-fold increase in funding for the US National Endowment for Democracy and substantially increased funding for European democracy assistance efforts as well.  We also recommend that Europe and the US join together to create a new nongovernmental Middle East Foundation to provide another channel for society-to-society assistance and exchanges.  Support is needed not just for NGOs, think tanks, and parties, but for various governmental institutions that are seeking to reform.


  1. We urgently need to increase educational, social, and cultural contacts between the peoples of the West and the Middle East.  This requires a new visa regime for travelers from the Middle East, and in particular the development of a “fast track” list to expedite visas and entry for known friends and democrats from the broader Middle East.


I want to close by noting the type of environment in the region that would help to foster democratic change.  We discuss in this regard, for example, the need for a sustained commitment to political reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the need for a more coherent and effective strategy to deal with Iran.  But for most of the members of our group, the highest priority in this regard is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The West cannot wave a magic wand to bring an end to this conflict.  Neither can we allow aspirations for democratic change in the region to be held hostage by this conflict.  But many in the Arab world today see a Western and especially American commitment to renew the role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as a litmus test of Western intentions and credibility.  It is vital that the US resume this role.  Advancing the peace process is not a precondition for being able to foster the democratic process, but if the two proceed in parallel, each effort is likely to be more credible and effective. 


[1] See the essays on Islam and democracy in Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg, eds., Islam and Democracy in the Middle East (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, forthcoming).


[2] The Arab Human Development Report 2002 (New York: United Nations Development Program, 2002): 2.

[3] Ibid, p. 114.