Let's Get Serious About Democracy in the Greater Middle East

Posted in Broader Middle East | 25-Mar-04 | Author: Ronald Asmus| Source: Progressive Policy Institute

and Michael McFaul

A bipartisan consensus is emerging in America about the need to help bring greater freedom and democracy to the Greater Middle East. It is from this region that the most imminent threats to Western security are likely to emanate in the 21st century. It is here that the dangerous mix of extremist ideologies, terrorism, and access to weapons of mass destruction is most likely to occur. And it is certainly no accident that the most dangerous part of the world where the war on terrorism will be won or lost is also the least free.

The war on terrorism cannot be won militarily. It must be won politically and with ideas. We need a grand strategy to help these countries transform themselves into the kinds of societies that focus on the needs of their peoples -- ones that do not produce people who want to kill us and have the capacity to do so. Unless we help the Greater Middle East resolve its own internal pathologies, we will not stem the root causes of terrorism.

That is why both George W. Bush and his Democratic rivals are now talking about the need to bring greater freedom, justice, and democracy to this region. A growing number of European leaders are also embracing the view that peaceful democratic regime change in the region today can help eliminate the need for military preemption tomorrow.

This sea change in Western thinking about our goals in the region, however, has not been matched by a strategy for how to achieve them. We have rhetoric about promoting freedom, but no policy or program to translate words into action. Today, the West is neither intellectually nor organizationally prepared to tackle this enormous challenge. To sustain bipartisan support at home and transatlantic support abroad over the long haul for this new imperative, we need a strategy.

A serious strategy of democracy promotion in the Greater Middle East must do three things -- support democrats in the region, create the regional context for democratic development, and reorganize ourselves at home to effectively pursue and sustain these policies.

First, we must recognize that change in the region must come from within these societies -- and we must design policies to strengthen those forces in the region pushing for such change. Today, democratic activists in these countries sit in jail because of their commitment to these principles and we do little to help them. A new strategy can start by setting a new benchmark for defending them. No senior American or Western leader should visit the region without raising human rights concerns and defending those brave individuals already fighting for democracy in their homelands.

We also need to help local democrats directly, through the strengthening of civil organizations with democratic orientation. In the Greater Middle East, there is a fierce struggle underway between democratic and anti-democratic leaders for the hearts and minds of civic groups. The West must help empower the democratic side by dramatically increasing our support of local NGOs working to create the sinews and foundations for more just, free, and democratic societies. Whereas the United States now spends nearly $400 billion on its defense, the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) has lived on a budget of some $40 million, only a fraction of which is spent supporting civil society in the Greater Middle East.

Both Republicans and Democrats have suggested doubling NED's budget. While this is an important step in the right direction, we need to think bigger and more boldly -- for example, raising the level of support tenfold or more. Non-governmental professionals in the democracy promotion business, not government officials, should administer these funds. And we should enlist the support of both business and labor in efforts to transform these societies. We should also challenge our allies in Europe, who often have more recent expertise, to create their own Europe-wide institution that can match our funding and work with us in pursing these goals.

But governments must do their part as well. They must start to tie future economic and security assistance for these countries to democratic reform and good governance. We need to start rewarding those countries in the region that are making progress and punishing those who do not. The West has leverage to achieve change in these countries if we are prepared to use it. Thus far we have not. The fact that much of the aid to the region comes from our allies, especially in Europe, only underscores why this new strategy has to be multilateral.

Second, the United States and its European allies need to help create the external environment and geopolitical context in which democratic change can more easily occur. The history of the last century in Europe shows that the provision of security is instrumental in fostering democratic development. Today, there is no neighborhood more hostile to democracy than the Greater Middle East. This sorry condition must change.

The first step to create this context would be to help Turkey turn itself into a full-fledged democracy qualifying for EU membership and demonstrate that the West is prepared to embrace a democratic Muslim country. If the West cannot get Turkey right, it certainly is not going to be able to solve the more complex problems in the region.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians would significantly accelerate positive political change across the region -- which is why Washington must end the current neglect and instead re-engage in the peace process. A democratic Palestine is not a reward to the Sept. 11 terrorists, but their worst nightmare. Autocratic Arab governments could no longer avoid pressures for change by hiding behind this conflict. The West would no longer have to coddle dictators in Syria or avoid pushing for reform in Egypt because of their key role in peace negotiations.

Nothing would set back the democratic cause in the region more than a premature American disengagement from Iraq, where a critical democratic transition is now underway. Irrespective of whether one supported or opposed the war, we all have a strategic interest in seeing Iraq's experiment in building a more just and democratic society succeed -- and we must hold the Bush Administration to its commitment to stay the course in Baghdad.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for a democratic breakthrough in the region is in Iran. No autocratic regime is more vulnerable to the pressures of a grassroots democratic movement. And Iran's efforts at acquiring nuclear weapons could set off a proliferation chain reaction in the region, heightening insecurity and potentially choking off a shift towards greater democracy. That is why American and European policymakers must pursue both goals in tandem. Yet, now, during the regime's greatest rollback of democratic practices in 25 years, one hardly hears a peep from the West in defense of Iran's democrats, causing some in Tehran to believe that the West is ready to sacrifice democracy for arms control.

Working with the moderate Arab states, we must also start to create a regional security regime that builds norms to hold governments in the region accountable not only for how they treat each other, but how they treat their own people. The great contribution of the Helsinki process in Europe was its recognition that true peace required a new relationship between rulers and the ruled, as well as between states -- and that it empowered societies to demand their governments to behave accordingly.

NATO, too, has a role to play. It can provide the peacekeeping capabilities needed to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq. And it can help promote more democratic practices in peacetime by extending cooperation under a new version of NATO's Partnership-for-Peace program to democratizing countries in the region. NATO's new role in the Middle East would be to keep the Americans and Europeans in, dictators down, and terrorists out.

The third big step in a grand strategy for democracy promotion is to reorganize ourselves to sustain such a course for decades to come. We need to create a new generation of diplomats, warriors and democracy-builders who know the region and its languages, as well as those who have the skills to advise our leaders on the best policies and pursue them effectively. Just as America in the early post-war period had to create a new generation of experts to understand the Soviet Union, we now need to do the same for the Greater Middle East.

But we also need to reorganize the federal government to meet these challenges, not unlike the innovation needed after World War II to fight the Cold War. Winning the war on terrorism will require a combination of offense and defense. For defense, the United States has created the Department of Homeland Security and is transforming the U.S. military to meet new terrorist challenges. The president has two members of his cabinet directly responsible and accountable for these issues.

But when it comes to offense -- building democracy, political transformation, winning the war on ideas -- that mission is buried down in the second and third echelon of the State Department where it will never receive the leadership, attention, and resources required to succeed. Therefore, President Bush or his Democratic successor should create a Department of Democracy Promotion headed by a Cabinet-level official. Our governmental capacity to help build new democratic states must be as great as our capacity to destroy autocratic regimes.

Today, Americans have started to understand the link between a spread of freedom and the enhancement of American national security in the Greater Middle East. It is time for our leaders to match noble words with bold action.

Ronald D. Asmus is senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Michael McFaul is an associate professor of political science and Hoover Fellow at Stanford University. Asmus and McFaul were contributing authors to Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy.