Democracy, Freedom, and Imposition

First Published: Dec 06, 2004 

How Best Can the US Effect Democratization in the Middle East

Democratization of the Middle East is now the official policy of the Bush Administration. This is a welcome departure from the “stability” approach that characterized US policy toward the region throughout the better part of the last century. Although never clearly and openly stated, the Bush Administration has finally recognized the intimate connection between global terrorism and the authoritarian regime system of the Middle East, and decided to make “democracy” and “freedom” the cornerstone of its policy towards the Middle East. The words “freedom” and “democracy” are most dominant terms used by President Bush and his advisors and lieutenants. Fighting terrorism and advancing freedom and democracy are the main declared objectives of the US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet efforts to advance freedom and democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan compete with other less pronounced but apparently more important objectives: extending US hegemony in the region, and using US overwhelming power to preempt and contain rogue states. This linkage between the war on terrorism and the advancement of democracy on the one hand, and singling out less cooperative and friendly regimes for rough treatment makes many observers of Middle East politics uncomfortable. Using overwhelming force and relying heavily on military power to bring about democracy raise a host of issues as to whether the advocates of democratization have thought through the socio-political conditions presupposed by democratic governments, or whether they have examined the role of the United States in advancing authoritarianism in the Middle East.

 A close examination of the Bush Administration strategy to advance democracy and freedom reveals serious problems and flaws:

¨      Incongruence between intentions and actions, and between self-perception and perception of others.

¨      Competing goals pursued by the Administration, most significantly advancing democracy and preserving hegemony.

¨      Lack of clarity in the principles that guide US foreign policy toward the Middle Eat, including conflating terrorism with national struggles for freedom and independence.

¨      Inconsistency in appealing to international law and Security Council resolutions, and the mixed messages the US government sends to Middle East actors.

¨      Ambivalence in relating national interests with moral values, including concerns about human rights, freedom, and democracy.

The Bush Doctrine of Military Preeminence

The current Middle East policy has been shaped by the principles annunciated by George W. Bush in a June 1, 2002, during a speech to the graduating class of West Point.

    The new policy stresses the need to promote democracy and freedom in all regions of the world, and insisted, as Bush stated at West Point, that "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves -- safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life."
    The policy made it clear that the US intends to take actions as necessary to continue its status as the world's sole military superpower. As Bush put it: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge."
    The policy further insisted that the US has the right to pursue unilateral military action when acceptable multi-lateral solutions cannot be found.

Combining preemption with unilateralism has already led to the two major wars in which the US is currently involved: Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush and senior officials insist that the two countries are only the tip of the iceberg, stressing that Al-Qaida terrorists are spread in over 60 countries, and underscoring the long term nature of the war on terror, which could run over many years, even decades. Given the cost of this war, in both human and economic terms, and given the fact that the Bush Administration’s response to global terrorism has so far led to the rise in terrorist incidents around the world, as the State Department was forced to revise its early assessments and declare 2003 the worst year in terrorism record, a quick examination of US policy toward the Middle East, and the current strategy to fighting terrorism is in order.

Incongruence between Intentions and Actions

US foreign policy is often characterized by American leaders and foreign policy analysts as one of benevolence and good will toward foreign countries. American actions toward other nations are frequently expressed in such terms as the provision of foreign aide, the promotion of human rights, and the defense and strengthening of democratic rule. President Bush’s assertion in his West Point speech that "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish" is indicative of the overwhelming American self-perception.

Indeed, American leaders have always been careful to distance US policies and actions from those associated with empires and empire building. A nation that came to existence by rejecting imperialistic policies and fighting imperialist armies under the banner of freedom and democracy, the United States has never been comfortable to send its troops to control other nations. And despite its short flirtations with colonial adventures in the Philippines, the United States has managed to stay away from ruling other counties directly.

Still, the United States’ projection of power in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East is often subsumed by popular movements in those regions under the rubric of imperialism or neo-colonialism. In fact, the charge of imperialism was made against US foreign policy by one of its brilliant children. John Dewey, a great American philosopher and sociologist of international repute, accused American political leaders in an article published in 1927 in The Republic, under the title “Imperialism is Easy,” of this very embarrassing stigma. Dewey was aware of the dichotomy of action and intention in American foreign policy, and, therefore, stressed that “[i]mperialism is a result, not a purpose or plan.”[1] He went on to argue that American actions towards Mexico have all the features of imperialism, even when the American government acts to protect the freedom of movement and private property of ordinary American businesses. He, thus, concluded that imperialism “can be prevented only by regulating the conditions out of which it proceeds.”[2]

The Tension between American Ideals and Interests

Political leaders, mindful of the public abhorring of imperialist objectives, have always coached the aim of military adventures in a language that stress democracy and human rights. The sad reality, though, is that concerns for human rights have been aligned with US national interests to the point where the overwhelming perception today is that the US government uses human rights as an instrument for advancing national interests.

The Heritage Foundation (HF) published in 1996 a foreign policy paper entitled Restoring American Leadership: US Foreign Policy and Defense Blueprint. The paper brings to focus and makes explicit what has been silently practiced and implicitly upheld by successive US administrations, beginning with the Nixon’s. The Blueprint urges US leaders to champion liberty around the world. “By nurturing this dream of liberty for others,” HF contends, “the United States is grounding its foreign policy in a universal idea that is good for both America and the World.”[3]

The commitment to liberty advocated by HF is, however, conditioned by another principle: the principle of selective engagement. HF insists that while the US “must be deeply engaged in international affairs to protect its freedom and security,” it should do that by adopting “a strategy of selective engagement that would enable America to apply military power only when vital or important interests are threatened…”[4] Among the vital interests that justify the use of military power, the HF document lists “trade protectionism, trade wars, and trade blocs.”[5]

To ensure that American leaders have great flexibility in selecting the issues and regions that requires US engagement, the document rejects any solemn commitment to the international structures and the United Nations. The US must be free, HF counsels, “from the constraints imposed by excessive multilateralism,” because “too much reliance on global institutions like the UN impinges on American sovereignty and weakens the leadership role America must play to protect freedom around the world.”[6]

In sum, US foreign policy as envisaged by HF, and as has been practiced in effect for sometime now, is based on three cardinal principles:

    US should promote freedom and democracy in other regions of the world, since this is the only defensible moral ground on which the projection of US military power can be justified.
    US moral concerns for freedom and democracy must be curtailed by the national interests of the United States, which fundamentally take the form of economic and geopolitical US concerns.
    To harmonize principles 1 and 2, the US must adopt the principle of selective engagement, which align US moral to economic concerns, and hence subordinate the former to the latter.

The foreign policy HF Blueprint describes is a policy that subordinates the universal principles of right and justice to the national interests of the United States, and which reduces the United Nations and its resolutions to a convenient instrument to be invoked only when it serves the US interests. While the document and the strategy it advocates is quite disturbing, it is more disturbing to note that it, indeed, describes the tenets of US foreign policy since the Nixon administration.

The neo-conservatives have embraced HF Blueprint, and made their own contribution by adding the preemptive and unilateral elements of that form The Bush Policy. In an article published in November-December issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, John Bolton, Assistant Secretary at the State Department and Vice President of American Enterprise Institute wrote: "It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so -- because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States.” The utter disdain to international law shared by neo-conservatives also extends to the organization established to facilitate its development and administration: The United Nation. Richard Perle, the acclaimed architect of the Iraq War expressed jubilation to see the United States defying the United Nations by unilaterally declaring war on Iraq on the pages of The Guardians in the spring of 2003 in an article, appropriately entitled “Thank God for the death of the UN” (Friday, March 21, 2003).
Competing Goals: National Interests vs. Human Rights

In many parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East, America is associated not with freedom and democracy but with suppressive and autocratic regimes. For the last fifty years, successive United States governments have stood behind self-appointed leaders, providing them with financial and military support, as well as security and political advice.  Far from being the guardian of freedom and democracy, the United States is often seen as the power behind military regimes and brutal dictators.

The United States involvement in Iran is a case in point. The United States Central Intelligence Agency was directly involved in engineering the coup d’état that removed the democratically elected government of Mohammed Musadeq, and installed the Shah regime in Iran in 1954. Despite his abuse of the civil liberties of his people, and his extensive use of state security forces to suppress critics and opposition forces, the Shah continued to receive the blessing of American leaders. President Carter, who insisted that the United States foreign policy must be informed by American concerns over human rights, praised the Shah during a visit shortly before the latter was ousted by the Islamic revolution. The United States later took an active part in arming Saddam Hussein in a bid to topple the revolutionary government in Tehran. To ensure the cooperation of the Iraqi military government, the Reagan Administration kept silent when Saddam used Chemical weapons against Iranians as well as against the Kurdish opposition in Northern Iraq. It was only when the belligerent Saddam turned his newly acquired military strength against the oil rich Gulf countries that he was declared a renegade.

After so many decades of support Saddam and other military and autocratic regimes in the Middle East, the US finally decided to overthrow the dictator. Ignoring all advice from Middle East experts, the Bush Administration acted on the advice of its neo-conservative planners and decided to invade Iraq and install a new democratic regime.  Oblivious to the ethnic, religious, and ethnic complexity of the country, and the sensitivities of its culture, the US decided to use its armed forces to rebuild the Iraq state so as to become both democratic and responsive to US national interests. And for two years now, we are all witnesses to a great tragedy inflicted on a nation of 25 millions in the name of nation building, preemption, and unilateralism. The state of chaos and anarchy that persistent since the US took hold of Iraq have wiped out the American contribution to the throwing of a dictator, and led to a wide-spread of anti-Americanism through out the Middle East and far beyond.

The failure of successive United States administrations to project clear and sustained interests in freedom and democracy can be seen in the United States position vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades, Arabs and Muslims watched the Israeli government expand its territories at the expense of its Arab neighbors. Israel was allowed to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and South Lebanon with the tacit approval and blessing, and occasionally with the open support, of the United States government, in spite of successive UN resolutions and clear violation of International law.[7]

Over the past three years, Middle Easterners watched countless pictures of the Israeli military using US-made Apache, designed to destroy tanks, used for assassinating Palestinian activists, and US-made tanks and rocket launchers used to suppress the Palestinian Intifada.

Combating Terrorism

Terrorism is a plight that must be fought. No amount of anger and discontent can justify the targeting of non-combatant civilians with the brutality we all witnessed on September 11, 2001. The level of destruction inflicted on civilians, the brutality with which the terrorist attacks were executed, and the fact that the terrorist design is undertaken by extensive deliberation and determination sent shock waves throughout the world, and brought condemnation from foes and friends alike. Targeting thousands of unarmed civilians, using civilian airliners carrying civilian passengers, and bringing down two of the most spectacular buildings in the whole planet, in a drama that was played on live TV in front of millions of viewers, made the attacks even more sinister and apocalyptic.

But terrorism cannot be fought by mystifying it or by ignoring its root causes.  The first step for developing a sound strategy to effectively combat terrorism is to examine the conditions that give rise to the anger, frustration, and desperation that fuel all terrorist acts. To focus on individuals and organizations that employ terror, while ignoring the socio-political circumstances that give rise to acts of desperation, can potentially strengthen the arms of the terrorists. A devastating force unleashed against elusive groups can exacerbate the very conditions that gave rise to resentment, frustration, and anger.

America is admired throughout the world for a political system characterized by freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. But America is resented in many parts of the world for, ironically, its willingness to support authoritarian and corrupt regimes as long as they advance America’s economic and strategic interests. Those who are using terror against America are the product of political repression. They are the product of Middle Eastern regimes befriended by the United States but have little respect for freedom and democracy.  It is indeed a sad but true reality that many prefer to ignore: Free and democratic America has been nurturing repression aboard. To acknowledge this fact is the first step to deal with the roots of terrorism.

 Equally important is that we pursue a methodical and persistent approach to terrorism. Terrorism must be clearly defined, and systematically confronted. If terrorism is defined as the use of violence against unarmed civilians, then we have to ensure that all individuals and organizations that fit this description, regardless of their positioning and loyalty, are identified as such.  The United States government has not been consistent in identifying terrorist acts. The United States government did not recognize the Russian brutal attacks against Chechnya, and its use of disproportionate force to flatten the Chechen capital for what it is, and for what it represents.

 Similarly, The Israeli incursion into Lebanon, and Israel’s shelling of Beirut and other civilian targets, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, did not receive the moral condemnation it deserves. Israel continues to use excessive military force to suppress an essentially civilian uprising against its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The Bush Administration has so far given Israel a free hand to bully the Palestinians and to violate the terms of its Oslo commitments.

Terrorism is fueled by the actions of exclusivist regimes that privilege some and deny basic rights to others. It is fueled by rogue governments that use state security agencies and excessive force to silence critics and political opposition.  To be effective in fighting terrorism we must dry the swamps of abuse and injustice that bread radicalism all over the Middle East, through a consistent and even-handed policy.

It is Still not Too Late to Rethink US Outlook towards the Middle East

The United States foreign policy that aligns American support behind tyrants and dictators, and against the legitimate aspirations of popular movements pursuing national independence or democratic rule, is informed by notions and principles advanced by political realists. That is, they are informed by the nationalist political culture of nineteenth-century Europe. The political realist approach to international politics insists that national leaders have one paramount obligation, i.e. advancing the national-interests of their nations, often defined in economic or geopolitical terms. Political realists justify this position by pointing out that in the absence of international law that can be enforced by a central authority, nations are justified in enforcing their own interests. To do otherwise, political realists stress, is to give unprincipled foreign powers the opportunity to grow unchecked.

The pursuit of self-defined national interests led Europe to two devastating world wars. This, however, did not put an end to political realism, even after the United States introduced a new approach to international relations based on international organizations and International Law, as many of its advocates found in the Cold War atmosphere a basis for reproducing a bit more sophisticated argument to place national interests over the demand of right and justice. The neo-conservatives have further escalated the realist arguments by injecting the principle of preemption and unilateralism.

American Muslims can play an important role in bridging the gap between the Muslim world and the United States, helping win the war on terrorism, and advance democracy in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has consistently excluded them from both decision making and consultation. Instead, President Bush relied exclusively on the advice of ideologues that have little understanding of Middle Eastern trends and cultures.

Advancing democracy in the Middle East, and elsewhere, cannot be done by the use of force. Democracy has to be achieved from within, and cannot be imposed from without. The United States can best help Middle Easterners advance democracy by withdrawing support from autocratic regimes, particularly those who are more interested in pleasing their foreign allies and protecting foreign interest than in developing their nations. Regimes that use brutal force to suppress opposition and silence those who want to ensure that the dignity and wellbeing of citizens are given priority over foreign allies are the worst enemies of the United States, because they nurture anti-American sentiments and radicalize their population. The Shah of Iran was such an ally, and the US must avoid a rerun of the Iranian reaction to its policies elsewhere in the Middle East.


[1] John Dewey, “Imperialism Is Easy,” The New Republic 50 (March 23, 1927).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kim Holmes and Thomas Moore (eds.), Restoring American Leadership (The Heritage Foundation, 1996), p. 2

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] UN Resolutions 242 and 338 require that Israel withdraw from territories it occupied during 1967 War with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, including the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Height of Syria.

Presented at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Washington, DC, December 6, 2004.

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