For a very long time, American leaders have believed that democracy could solve many of the world's problems. And no, I'm not just referring to George W. Bush; I'm talking Thomas Jefferson. "This ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll around the globe," Jefferson wrote ecstatically after American independence. Almost every president since then, including Bush and Barack Obama, has championed to differing degrees the idea that global democracy is an inevitable and beneficent historical force.
But the ball of liberty is looking pretty deflated these days, especially in the Mideast. Despite much editorializing that holds a neo-isolationist Obama responsible for this, the trend has little to do with U.S. policy. It has far more to do with the emerging reality that not only isn't democracy a panacea, it sometimes—apostasy alert!—doesn't work well at all. Indeed, in some unready parts of the globe like the Arab world, democracy may not be the best way forward, at least right now.
That is especially true in countries where tribal and sectarian politics still rule the national sensibility, and the groups that win elections are mainly interested in stifling, disenfranchising, or even killing their out-balloted rivals, as in Egypt, Iraq, and very likely Syria. Plainly, the Obama administration has adapted its policy accordingly. We are thus at a high tide of realpolitik.
Consider, for starters, Egypt, where the main source of dialogue for months has been conducted in a fairly smooth way between junta leader Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. True enough: Under the junta that ousted President Mohamed Morsi last July, the two-day constitutional referendum that began Tuesday has been rigged and virtually ensures military rule, opening the way for Sisi to refashion himself as a Hosni Mubarak-like autocrat. "It ought to be obvious that the 'road map' to democracy that Gen. Sisi is promoting is no more than a fig leaf covering the restoration of the pre-2011 regime, in a more malignant form," The Washington Post editorialized in opposing the resumption of more than $1 billion in U.S. aid.
But what if the constitution forced through in 2012 by the elected Morsi, the deposed Islamist president, was even more repressive than what Egyptians voted on this week? Arguably, it was. That constitution enshrined Islamism and sharia as the law of the land, which Morsi enforced with a decree forbidding the courts from challenging it, and under it he assumed near-dictatorial powers that Sisi will almost certainly not have if he becomes president. While the new constitution does, somewhat alarmingly, establish the dominance of the military, it also expands personal freedoms and rights for Egypt's broader population, including women and the Christian minority.
It also appears that many Egyptians agree with this lesser-of-evils assessment, based on the early vote in which the Sisi referendum appeared to be widely supported. Most Egyptians desperately want economic growth after three years of chaos, and they'll vote for whoever promises to deliver stability. Right now that is Sisi, no matter how horrifically bloody his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been. Beyond that, Washington badly needs Egypt, the most populous Arab country, on its side in the Middle East right now as it attempts a dramatic realignment including Israeli-Palestinian talks and negotiations with Iran and Syria. So there is really little choice for U.S. policymakers but to side with morally compromised pseudo-democracy.
In Syria, given recent trends, the ouster of Bashar al-Assad followed by anything resembling democratic elections would almost certainly bring 1) a bloodbath and 2) some form of Islamist rule that is even more radical and anti-Western than what Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood planned in Egypt. Secretary of State John Kerry's current effort to bring Assad and moderate opposition elements together in Switzerland doesn't obscure the fact that the decisive fighting going on in the country is a three-way battle between the regime, radical Syrian Islamists, and rival radical foreigners represented by the al-Qaida-linked group called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If there were post-Assad elections in Syria any time soon—real elections—a population under the gun of some of these dominant Islamist groups would likely vote in a radical government. Against that prospect, even a bloody tyrant like Assad might be preferable for the time being.
In Iraq, despite a multitrillion-dollar U.S. effort over the better part of a decade, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has, again and again, allowed his sectarian Shiite political base (and possibly Iran) to dictate policy toward the Sunnis and Kurds. Now, in response, Sunni tribal leaders are temporizing over whether to take on—or join—the resurrected al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups that have moved into Fallujah and Ramadi. Majority rule can really suck if your prime minister can't see beyond his political base, as in the case of Maliki and his Dawa Party, and is methodically disenfranchising his opponents. This is not a democracy that is working on any level.
The lamentable limits of democracy may soon extend to Libya, if it can ever reintegrate itself into a national whole. Since Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya has become one giant no-man's-land loosely governed by militias, most of which would be only too happy to hijack any election. In Yemen, secessionist tendencies between north and south have reemerged in the post-Saleh era. Only in Tunisia, where the ruling Islamist Ennahda party was scared straight by the ouster of Morsi in nearby Egypt, is there some hope for the kind of consensus politics that is critical to successful democracy. (Are you listening, U.S. Congress?)
It's a hard lesson to learn. But sometimes, it seems, countries are simply not mature enough, socially or economically, for democracy. Or the moment in history is wrong. Post-czarist Russia appeared that way when the autocratic Bolsheviks took out the weak, parliamentary-minded Mensheviks in 1917. And Weimar Germany did too, when the Nazi Party and newly elected Chancellor Hitler exploited the country's Depression-engendered economic chaos to abuse their electoral advantage as well, a situation that has unsettling echoes today in Egypt. Vladimir Putin's Russia may be proving the same thing today, along with Ukraine, where the opposition to Putin's like-minded ally, Victor Yanukovich, has degenerated into ultra-rightist torchlight parades. Choosing between Putinists and neo-Nazis is a little like choosing between military rulers and Islamist zealots—it is, in other words, no choice at all.
Maybe we should just take our ball of liberty and go home. For now.