William B. Quandt
June 10, 1992
American Policy Toward Democratic
Political Movements in the Middle East
At a time when democratic political movements seem to be gaining ground in many parts of the world, the Middle East appears to be a notable exception. Is this because the United States is throwing its weight behind the status-quo, a status-quo built around authoritarian political regimes of various sorts? Or is the reason that something in Middle East political culture is hostile to democratic politics? Or is the answer some combination of the two?
It is true that until recently the United States has not attached great importance to supporting democracy in the Middle East. Elsewhere, in Latin American and in East Asia, democratic movements have been given much greater encouragement from Washington, and success stories of democratic transformations are fairly widespread. Why has the Middle East been the exception?
It is unfair to say that American policy has been consistently hostile to democratic movements per se in the Middle East. After all, both Turkey and Israel have been among the closest friends of the United States and both have been relatively democratic in their political practices. In an earlier period, Lebanon as well enjoyed a measure of support from Washington, at least in part because of its commitment to democratic processes. Offsetting these examples of American support for democracy in the Middle East, however, are many more cases where official American policy seemed to stand directly in opposition to populist, anti-establishment political forces. Most dramatic was the American intervention in Iran in 1953 in support of the Shah against the Mossadegh government, which was at least popular, if not necessarily democratic. In subsequent years, Washington provided massive support for the Shah, particularly through arms sales in the 1970s. In addition to Iran, other monarchies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco have all enjoyed support from Washington.
Not only have monarchical regimes generally found favor in official circles in Washington, but also Arab dictatorships such as those of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, and Hafiz al-Asad of Syria have been on fairly good terms with the United States at various times over the years. How can an American policy support for democracy be reconciled with such obvious exceptions to the rule?
The answer to this question seems fairly straight forward. When the United States has supported non-democratic regimes in the Middle East, the reasons have usually been one of the following: oil was at stake; Israel was involved; or Soviet bids for influence in the Middle East were being countered. These three concerns -- oil, Israel and the Soviet Union -- were the driving forces behind American Middle East policy throughout most of the period of the 1950s through the 1980s. Democratization was viewed, at best, as a secondary objective. The United States, on balance, was willing to deal with existing political regimes when their foreign policy orientations served one or more of these three core interests. While not apologizing for this narrowly constructed approach to the Middle East, one can nonetheless note that most other countries adopted very much the same policies as did the United States. (For example, the Soviet Union was regularly prepared to sacrifice the interests of indigenous communist parties if it served Moscow's interest to deal with one regime or another in the Middle East).
With the end of the Cold War, conditions may now exist in which the old paradigm that governed American policy can be successfully challenged. There is no longer any reason to support non-democratic regimes in the Middle East simply because they stood on the American side during the Cold War. Still, the United States will have an interest in maintaining access to Middle East oil and in promoting Arab-Israeli peace as part of its broader commitment to Israel's security and well-being. How will these two interests be affected by the growth of democratic political movements in the region?
On the face of it, there is no reason to believe that democratic governments in the Middle East, whether in the Persian Gulf or in North Africa, would be less willing to sell oil than the petro-oligarchs of today. So oil supply is unlikely to be jeopardized by the mere existence of democratic governments, assuming they were somehow to come into existence. The question then is not so much whether the United States could live comfortably with a Middle East in which popularly elected governments controlled the oil spigots. To that questions the answer is certainly yes. The proper question is how can one envisage a transition from the existing situation in the Middle East today, where non-democratic regimes control the flow of oil, to one in which more open, participatory democracies have assumed responsibility for the management of this unique resource.
In so far as strategic analysts think about this question in Washington, the question arises of "why rock the boat?" The Saudis are indeed far from being a model of western-style democracy, but they are also far from being the most repressive regime in the region. And if King Fahd were to be replaced, not by a Saudi Thomas Jefferson, but rather by a Saudi Khomeini, or a Saudi Saddam Hussein, democracy would be even more remote than it is today.
The key value for the United States with respect to access to oil supplies is stability and predictability. Few in the West want to gamble with the consequences of radical political upheavals in the Gulf region. Although it is true that Iran managed to resume oil production on a large scale after its revolution, one should not trivialize the cost to the world economy of the upheavals that accompanied the downfall of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini. For much of 1978-79, very little oil from Iran was exported. And then after 1980, Iranian oil supplies were restricted as a byproduct of the long Iran-Iraq war.
The total cost to the world of these disruptions in Iran's oil supplies is certainly measured in the tens of billions of dollars. If the same kind of upheaval were to affect Saudi oil supplies in the 1990s, the United States, and all of the rest of the world, would go through a very difficult economic recession. So even if one can be relatively sanguine about the behavior of any stable government with respect to its oil resources, it is much more difficult to be optimistic that prolonged political upheaval could take place in a country like Saudi Arabia, or other large oil producers, without creating serious disruptions to the world economy.
Even though democratization inevitably entails some risk of instability, there is no basic reason for the United States to be so cautious about discussing democratic political change in the Arab world or elsewhere in the Middle East region. It is quite possible for the United States to lend support to the cautious moves in the direction of political participation, such as those envisaged in some Gulf states, without worrying too much about the nervous reactions of the regime in Saudi Arabia. The United States has been very hesitant to use the word democracy in discussing policies and objectives in the Middle East, and this has been noted by aspiring democrats in the region with some dismay. In our general policy statements, and certainly in our private discussions with regimes in the region, there is no reason not to place emphasis on the importance that we attach to democratic political values, respect for human rights, and the important links we see between opening up economic systems and political systems as a basis for long-term growth and stability in the region. Even if some regimes react negatively to this kind of discourse, oil will continue to flow. American interests are not incompatible with American principles.
Concerning our other major interest in the Middle East, namely Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process, our preference in the past has been to deal with any regime, such as that of Anwar Sadat of Egypt, that was willing to negotiate a settlement with Israel. If Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, or Yassir Arafat of the PLO, or King Hussein of Jordan were to emulate Sadat, they would win a degree of American support whether or not they upheld democratic principles. Yet in the long run a lasting Arab-Israeli peace is more likely if some degree of democratization does take place in the Arab world, and particularly in the countries surrounding Israel. So even here, our long-term interests are perfectly compatible with support for democratic movements. Nonetheless, there is an understandable hesitation to push for democracy in a country like Jordan or in Syria, when there is little chance that American efforts will be rewarded, and when the risks of derailing the fragile peace process are fairly substantial.
It is worth looking at a recent Middle East case where neither oil nor Israel was a major consideration for American policy. In late 1991 and early 1992, Algeria scheduled elections for its national assembly. The United States had encouraged the process of political and economic liberalization in Algeria, although not at a particularly high level. After the results of the first round of elections in late December 1991, it was clear that the Islamic movement, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), was on its way to an electoral victory. Somewhat surprisingly, there was not much reaction in Washington to the possibility that an Islamic state in North Africa might soon emerge. By contrast, several European countries, especially France, and Algeria's immediate neighbors, Tunisia and Morocco, showed strong signs of anxiety.
When in mid-January 1992 the Algerian authorities decided to suspend the second round of elections, rather than risk a victory by the Islamic movement, the United States reacted mildly. But it is simply not the case that Washington was somehow behind the Algerian decision to abort the electoral process. After initially indicating its belief that Algeria had acted according to its own constitutional provisions, the State Department corrected itself and took a decidedly neutral posture on whether or not the suspension of the elections had been justified. No doubt many in Washington would have felt somewhat uneasy if the FIS had in fact come to power. Few believed that the leaders of the Islamic movement were model democrats. At the same time, however, the United States seemed prepared to maintain normal relations with Algeria under whatever circumstances might emerge from the political test of wills between a non-democratic, one-party nationalist regime and a prospective Islamic regime. This is an issue that will no doubt arise again in the future. Based on the Algerian case, we can expect the United States to be prepared to deal with Islamic movements which come to power through elections in a normal manner.
In the coming years, it is quite likely that the United States will face a wide range of political experimentation in the Middle East. Existing regimes have failed to win popular support in most parts of the region. Pressures for political change exist. Democratization is now widely discussed, if little practiced. Islamic movements may well try to use elections to come to power, without intending to play by democratic rules once they have consolidated their power. All of this will pose dilemmas for Washington, but none of them seem to be unmanageable. Not all of the uncertainties that accompany political change in the Middle East necessarily will pose significant threats to American national interests. What then should be done by the United State to prepare itself for a period of political transformation in a region where major interests continue to exit?
First, the United States should extend the range of its political contacts in key countries. In the past, American officials were often prohibited from meeting with opposition figures, for fear of offending friendly regimes. Some of this hesitation to meet with or talk to opposition leaders still exists. Looking to the future, the United States needs to be better informed about possible successor leaders in key Middle Eastern states, and should have no hesitation to establish normal communications and contacts with a variety of political groupings, if for no other reason than to learn more about the programs and personalities that make up these movements.
Second, the United States should reconsider its traditional stance toward political change in the Middle East. In the past, we have spoken of stability as a supreme objective in the Middle East, and yet emphasis on stability can lead to support for regimes that have lost support from their own people and which have ceased to be viable partners for the United States as it pursues its own policies in the region. We should accept the inevitability of political change, and should stress that the important point is that change should be brought about through peaceful means, rather than through violence and revolution. We should place greater emphasis in our public statements on the need for respect for human rights for political freedoms, and for broadening opportunities for political participation within Middle Eastern states. Along with our conventional emphasis on the Arab-Israeli peace process, our concern for controlling weapons of mass destruction, and our commitment to encouraging economic reforms, an emphasis on democratization, liberalization, and human rights would appeal to many in the Middle East who are now convinced that the United States will back any regime, regardless of its policies toward its own people, if only that regime agrees to support American foreign policy objectives. During the Cold War, such a stance may have made sense for Washington, but it is increasingly obsolete.
If regimes in the Middle East do take steps in the direction of political reform -- opening up their political systems, allowing freedom of expression, respecting the rule of law, holding free elections -- then the United States should demonstrate in its actions and in its words that it supports and will encourage the continuation of these efforts. Countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen are all struggling to introduce elements of democratization into their political life, and the United States has a strong interest in seeing that these processes succeed and continue. In some cases, this will require the continuation of aid programs which no longer enjoy much popular support in the United States. But by linking in the American public mind the provision of economic support for countries moving toward democracy, a constituency for continued assistance could still be maintained.
In order to encourage democratic political change in the Middle East the United States should continue to promote the Arab-Israeli peace process. The absence of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has been used for years by various Arab regimes as an excuse for maintaining harsh dictatorial rule. If the Arab-Israeli conflict were on its way toward a solution, and if an emerging Jordanian-Palestinian confederation were to adopt broadly democratic principles of government, it would be increasingly difficult for Arab dictators to justify the continued repression that they have relied on for so many years. In brief, one of the benefits of success in Arab-Israeli peace talks may well be to strengthen moderate and democratic political forces in the region. Palestinians are among the best placed of Arabs to inject democratic principles into their political institutions. They, after all, have suffered from the lack of democracy in the region and have gone further in accepting pluralism within their own political movement than have most Arab regimes.
With the end of the Middle East Cold War era, the United State has an opportunity to place greater emphasis on issues of human rights in its relations with countries of the Middles East. Both in public and in private, American officials should take a tough stand whenever flagrant abuses of human rights can be demonstrated. This should even be done when it risk embarrassing friendly countries, as it almost certainly will on occasions.
With respect to the growing strength of Islamic movements in the Middle East, the United States should avoid overreacting to the specter of a monolithic Islamic threat. Islamic movements will manifest themselves in a variety of ways, often as a result of quite specific circumstance in different countries. In some cases, the United States should have no intrinsic difficulty in dealing with these Islamic movements. On other occasions, there will be objective conflicts of interest and of policy and it will do no good to bend over backwards and pretend that these do not exist. In brief, the United States should treat Islamic movements as complex, multi-faceted phenomena, and not as a monolithic threat. We should take our stand with respect to Islamic movements and governments on a case-by-case basis. And we should remember that it makes little sense to lump all political currents that call themselves Islamic together, just as it would make little sense to lump all political movements that identify themselves as democratic or as Christian under the same label.
Finally, the United States is likely to have an opportunity in the near future to influence the political transformation of Iraq. At some point, Saddam Hussein will certainly be removed from power. When that happens, the United States and its western allies will have considerable influence over the transition. Any new Iraqi regime will need generous support from the outside world. It will need a relaxation of the economic embargo. It will need to export its oil. It will need relief from demands for repayment of debt and reparations. Decisions on each of these measures can be related to democratic political performance of the new regime. In this sense, the United States has a chance to demonstrate that its victory over Iraq was not simply for oil, but was also designed to bring an end to aggressive dictatorships and to open the way for democratic political participation.
If the United States is to inject a concern for democratization into its Middle East policy, several considerations must be borne in mind. First, a policy of active support for democratization abroad is incompatible with a sharp turn toward isolationism in the United States. If we choose to disengage from world affairs, if we turn our gaze exclusively inward, we will have little time or energy for encouraging constructive political change abroad.
Assuming that we can avoid the extreme of isolationism, we must also be wary of the other extreme of American triumphalism. The fact that the United States won the Cold War does not mean that it can impose its views and its values everywhere in the world. To assume that "markets and democracy" can be exported according to a single model, and be made to work universally, is a sign of naivete. We will not be able to force our version of democracy onto an area that has had little experience of its own with pluralistic politics. Nor can we create democratic movements where they do not exist. The point is not to have "Made in the USA" democracies sprouting up throughout the Middle East. The point is rather to encourage political movements in the region that represent indigenous forces for constructive political change, that respect human rights, that respect political freedoms, and respect diversity. On occasions, such movements will create political systems which do not resemble classical democratic experiments elsewhere. But they may represent considerable progress over the authoritarian regimes of the recent past.
With an eye toward our own past, we would do well to show some patience with countries struggling to adopt democratic methods of governance. We, after all, did not immediately find a workable constitutional formula; we began with a very restrictive franchise; we fought a civil war before adding the principle of equality to the rights protected by the government. And this all took a full two generations to accomplish. How much more difficult will it be for poor countries to democratize in the era of instant communications, galloping population growth, and rapid urbanization?
In conclusion, the United States should be prepared to cooperate with other major powers in promoting political and economic change in the Middle East. The United States today is preoccupied with its own economic illnesses. American public opinion polls show little support for continued foreign assistance. And without economic clout, the United States cannot expect to wield great influence over political evolution in the Middle East. Therefore, the United States will need partners who can contribute some of their own economic resources to a strategy for encouraging change in the Middle East. Europe and Japan are the obvious candidates, since they share with the United States democratic political systems, and they enjoy economic prosperity that allows them to contribute a share of their wealth to the construction of a new political and economic order in a region of the world that continues to be of vital importance to them as well as to us.