Commentary

The Trouble With Democracy in the Middle East

In his recent speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush pledged that the United States would embark on a decades-long commitment to bring democracy to the Middle East. But democracy is not a gift President Bush can bestow on people in distant lands.

Although the goal is laudable, the Bush administration will be disappointed with its effort to establish a stable liberal democracy in any Middle Eastern nation. That’s the verdict rendered by history, the contemporary reality of the region, and our own government experts.

Today, the Middle East lacks the conditions, such as a democratic political history, high standards of living, and high literacy rates, which stimulated democratic change in, for example, central Europe and East Asia. Ironically, many Arab countries are ruled by authoritarian leaders who are more liberal than the citizenry they lead.

President Bush’s speech ignored a classified Feb. 26, 2003, State Department report that expressed doubt that installing a new regime in Iraq will foster the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Written by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the report argued that “even if some version of democracy took root … anti-American sentiment is so pervasive that Iraqi elections in the short term could lead to the rise of Islamic-controlled governments hostile to the United States.”

President Bush’s pledge also ignores the traditions and values of America’s system of government. In trying to build a democratic Middle East, the president and his neoconservative advisers ignore the most basic principle of human existence: People don’t like being bossed around. They particularly don’t like being bossed around by foreigners.

And while the president noted that the number of democracies in the world had grown from just 40 in the 1970s to over 120 today, and while he correctly predicted that “over time, free nations grow stronger and dictatorships grow weaker,” the belief that the United States can accelerate this process is based on the same fatal conceit that brought down the Soviet empire: namely, that governments, and especially foreign governments, can realistically dictate noble ends.

Ronald Reagan understood this as well as anyone. President Bush’s speech deliberately drew comparisons to President Reagan’s June 1982 speech, in which Reagan predicted the imminent demise of Soviet communism because it failed to respect individual rights and to reward individual creativity. And we all know of Reagan’s mistrust of government. Revealingly, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on democracy programs in the Middle East during the 1990s with no noticeable impact.

Instead, as the president declared, the success of freedom rests upon the willingness of free peoples to sacrifice. But the people of the Middle East, not the people of the United States, must make these sacrifices. Indeed, heavy-handed attempts to force democracy upon the region by military conquest will ultimately prove counter-productive toward those ends, as the events in Iraq are showing us every day.

The nationalist sentiments that we have now inflamed in Iraq can easily be perverted by those, such as Osama Bin Laden, who are committed to returning the Middle East — and indeed, the entire world — not to a hopeful, democratic future, but rather to a dark and dismal autocratic past.

President Bush’s speech drew comparisons to other important speeches of the past, speeches that celebrated America’s commitment to the highest principles known to man: freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Bush might also have quoted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who declared in his famous 1946 Iron Curtain speech that “we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man,” but that “it is not our duty … to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries.”

Churchill urged the Free World to lead by principled example, not to impose such principles by force; adopting the latter course risks subverting these principles from within, and thus eroding the foundations of our own democracy as we propose to build new democratic foundations abroad. The reality is that the ingredients for successful democracy are found in domestic political kitchens. Democracy is a dish that Iraqis and others throughout the Middle East must prepare for themselves.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government and Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.