The False Hope of Democracy Promotion

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Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal is an ardent and eloquent proponent of democracy promotion in the Middle East. Not the gun-barrel variety, either.

Still, try as I might, I cannot square this circle:

Committing ourselves to real support for democracy and democrats in the Middle East is urgent for other reasons. Obama has a window of opportunity. Like all windows, this one will close. For the first time in recent memory, Arabs and Muslims are cheering on an American president (and, for that matter, praying for him). One of their longstanding grievances has been American support for dictatorships in the region. This isn’t to say we’re going to stop working with the Egyptian government (we need their cooperation on key national security issues). But it is to say that we should be making clear - not just with rhetoric but through policy changes on the ground - that we care about the state of human rights and political reform in the region.

Can you really have it both ways? I think that you're either serious about democracy promotion (i.e. regime change) or you're serious about cooperating with the existing rulers to advance key national security issues. You are not going to have both. The region's dictators are many things, but they're not foolish. If the U.S. were to truly press them on reform - particularly by making our generous financial and military aid conditional - I suspect that intelligence cooperation would simply dry up. Why should they help the U.S. when the U.S. is intent on subverting their rule?

Fast forward to 2011. You're the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of State and you're appearing before the National Committee for the Investigation of the Terror Attacks on the United States on July 4, 2010. You tell the committee members that cooperation with the Saudi and Egyptian intelligence services atrophied because you had preferred to use the leverage of American aid dollars to empower civil society groups working to undermine their regimes.

I suspect no on in an Obama administration would be willing to make such a trade-off.

Furthermore, as I said earlier, the U.S. is going to be paying increasingly less attention to the internal dynamics of the various Sunni Arab tyrannies as Iran progresses toward a nuclear weapon and we scramble to erect some form of containment regime. I personally believe this is mistake, but I'm also convinced it will happen and it will almost certainly vitiate any serious attempt to press these regimes to open up their politics - after all, it will make them considerably more vulnerable to Iranian-sponsored subversion, particularly in states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with large numbers of Shiites.

The great irony here is that we need the cooperation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to protect us from a movement that is riled up precisely because we cooperate with Egypt and Saudi Arabia (among other grievances, real and imagined). We should spend less time worrying how to finesse their internal politics to bring our favored groups to power and instead spend time figuring out ways to disentangle ourselves from the region.

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