Carothers on democracy-promotion

It appears that voting has gone very well in Iraq. I take this from the Guardian and Le Monde as well as the US media. Michael Ignatieff is right that we should celebrate free elections in Iraq, mourn those killed as they tried to campaign or vote, and condemn the opponents of Iraqi elections as “fascists.”

Nevertheless, the broader issue remains: Can the US directly promote democracy in the Middle East? On Friday, I had a chance to hear Thomas Carothers speak at Maryland. Carothers directs the “Democracy and Rule of Law Project” at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a supremely sensible, cogent, experienced thinker about democracy. I did not take notes, unfortunately, but here are some key points as I remember them.

While American administrations have traditionally believed that our national interests are best protected by stability in the Middle East, the Bush people believe that the existing autocratic regimes hurt us, and that we would be better off with democratic ones. Many liberal types in Washington agree with this goal, although they doubt the administration’s competence and sincerity. Thus “democracy-promotion” has achieved consensus in DC, at least as an ideal. However, in Western Europe and the Middle East, absolutely everyone is against a project of US-sponsored democratic regime change.

Carothers feels that the project will be extremely difficult, at best. The US lacks credibility with Arabs and Muslims because of our traditional support for autocratic regimes, our tilt to Israel, and our botched invasion of Iraq. Many powerful actors in the US have mixed motives, wanting to preserve cosy business relationships or to cooperate with Arab police states in the “war on terror.”

Above all, democracy-promotion is difficult because regimes like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Morocco are well-established, well-funded, and ruthless. They have plans for the orderly succession of power and face no dangerous insurgencies other than al Qaeda. It is extremely rare in human history for democratic movements to succeed under such conditions. This is not an argument that Arabs are unready or unsuited for democracy. However, democratic reform is always difficult, and the stars are very badly aligned in the Middle East.

Carothers doubts that there is any trick, any silver-bullet, any comprehensive strategy that we could employ to boost democracy in the region, even if our intentions were reasonably good. In theory, however, we could make democracy-promotion a consistent goal and then constantly seek opportunities to advance it: in diplomacy, military exchanges, trade policy, progaganda, and economic aid. If we also sought opportunities to work multilaterally–indeed, if we sometimes hid behind trusted third parties, such as the Nordic countries–then we could make incremental progress. At a minimum, we could gradually improve our credibility and thereby put ourselves in a position to help substantially if the situation ever changed in the Middle East.

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2 Responses to Carothers on democracy-promotion

  1. Anonymous says:

    Peter, I’ve just come across the site through an old post on Jonathan Dancy: very impressive! On the issue at hand, I think I agree. I’ve been meaning to post something on various issues around this issue. One issue, a little off-topic, is that there is a need for more understanding of the role of religion in political life. There is no doubt that Iraq, if it becomes a democracy in any significant sense, will be characterised by significant religious involvement in the workings of the state. How that is managed in general I don’t know. The experience of the Republic of Ireland is that it is possible, and though it was undesirable in itself, it may have been the, um, least suboptimal alternative.

    That said, the ROI was pretty homogenous. As we discovered here in Northern Ireland, division can create a far nastier situation…

    To return to your post, I suppose one thing that will have to happen is a recognition that, for the foreseeable future, politics in the Arab world will, in part, be the politiics of piety. Democratisation projects that avoid this truth will most likely fail.

  2. Peter Levine says:

    Carothers argued pretty strongly that democracies are not usually created by deliberate “democrats” whose main goals include free elections, civil rights, etc. More typically, democracies arise as the fortunate by-product of other political struggles. Thus, in Iraq, we could see a durable democracy emerge because:

    Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds decide that they are each best off in a regime based on power-sharing; representative elections are an efficient way to allocate power among multiple parties.

    The corruption of the Iranian clerical regime persuades very religious Iraqi Shiites to separate their clergy from the state–to protect the former from temptation.

    Governing Iraq proves very difficult. The powers that be become highly unpopular. They decide that they’d rather share power and responsibility than risk violent overthrow and destruction.

    The disagreements that exist within the major strands of fundamentalist Islam create lots of factions, and most decide that they’d rather live with religious pluralism than risk being dominated by their opponents.

    These scenarios (and some others that we could invent) all yield democracy despite the fact that every major player is committed to fundamentalism.

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