Selling Democracy to the Arab World

Zbigniew Brzeninski has an op-ed in today’s NYT entitled, “The Wrong Way to Sell Democracy to the Arab World.” He makes the usual criticisms of the Bush Administration’s approach to the problem–too heavyhanded, not enough support from Europe, etc.–but actually makes some alternative suggestions.

First, the program must be devised with Arab countries and not just presented to them. Egyptians and Saudis will not embrace democracy if they feel that their religious and cultural traditions are being slighted. The Europeans should also be fully engaged, and they should likewise pursue a dialogue of their own with the nations of the region regarding the definition and the goals of the planned undertaking. Any differences in approach could then be reconciled at the G-8 summit meeting.

Second, the initiative must recognize that without political dignity derived from self-determination there can be no democracy. The Germans regained their political dignity in a relatively short time after the end of World War II, and that in turn helped them to revive the democratic traditions of the pre-Nazi era. The program for Arab democracy will be more successful, and find wider acceptance, if it is matched by efforts to grant sovereignty to the Iraqis and Palestinians. Otherwise, democracy will seem to many in the Arab world to be window dressing for continued external domination.

Finally, the United States must define the substance of a peace settlement in the Middle East and then work energetically to put that agreement in place. Doing so will give greater credibility to the constructive motives behind the democracy initiative; it will also show the countries of the Middle East that there is a shared basis for a genuine partnership with the democratic West.

The transformation of the Middle East will be a more complex undertaking than the restoration of postwar Europe. After all, social restoration is inherently easier than social transformation. Islamic traditions, religious convictions and cultural habits must be treated with patient respect. Only then will the time be ripe for democracy in the Middle East.

The last point is certainly true. Although postwar Japan and Germany both had autocratic traditions, they were at least thoroughly modern societies. No state in the Arab world meets that test. And we faced nothing comparable to radical Islam in those situations, either. Further, for a variety of reasons, we can’t muster the political willpower to occupy Iraq for several years before turning over the reins, as happened in those cases. The cases of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are even more difficult, since invading and imposing our will are not rational options there.

That said, Brzeninski seems to advocate mutually exclusive positions: popular soveriegnty coupled with institutional structures that run counter to the will of the people. There’s no such thing as respect for minority rights and separation of church and state in a truly Islamic society.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Middle East, Political Theory, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SMASH says:

    Yes, and he falls victim to the fallacy that the Palestinians actually want “peace.”

    The only peace they want is that which will result once they’ve destroyed Israel and killed or expelled all of the “Jews and Crusaders” in the Middle East.

    Any peace plan they accept will only be viewed by them as an interim solution, or a respite before the next stage of their “liberation.”

  2. DeltaDave says:

    culture…its my one BIG concern about making a new Irag in the democratic image over the long haul.

    We use to say after Gulf War I, that we won because we are culturally different and that difference makes all the difference in the world.

    Actually, we said we could have traded the Iraqi’s equipment sets and we would still have beat the pants off of them because of our cultural differences. In fact, its true against most of the worlds’s military establishments.

    What we value and develop is individual initiative and leadership from the private on up. Any one has the potential to be a general.

    Just about all other military establish have the opposite culture. Its not the equipment that make the man, but the man who makes the equipment effective. CULTURE is the difference.

    Thus I worry…can we overcome the culture to develop individual initiative;, individual sense of ownership and responsibility; individual sense of challenging the new Frontier…..??