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Democracy Stalled

The Bush administration's campaign to spread democracy in the Arab and Islamic world is in danger of imploding. The next administration will have to pick up the pieces.

At a recent conference in Qatar on relations between the West and Islam, Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke of a dichotomy in power and perception between the two cultures, a split that extremists have tried to provoke into a "clash of civilizations." Few are more familiar with that divide than Karzai, a former mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and pleaded unsuccessfully with the United States not to abandon Afghanistan to civil war in the 1990s. Early on, Karzai also warned of an obscure band of fundamentalists called the Taliban and a nascent terrorist organization named Al Qaeda.

"I reject the idea that we are facing a clash of civilizations, but the world has been shrunken in size by the forces of globalization, and what is not understood is feared," said Karzai, speaking at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum sponsored by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. While praising U.S. ideals of democracy and religious tolerance, Karzai argued that America's unsurpassed power imposes the responsibility to help redress the plight of oppressed Muslims, whether in Kuwait and the Balkans in the 1990s, or in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian territories today. "And at the same time we engage in constructive dialogue with the West to find answers to the grievances our people hold," he said, "we must also silence the distorted voices of those Muslims who preach hatred and separation."


Despite the hopeful rhetoric, these are hard times for Muslim reformers and democrats such as Karzai, who on April 27 in Kabul was the target of an assassination attempt--at least the fourth against him--that killed three people as he was reviewing new Afghan military forces. Put aside for a moment the fact that more than seven years into the "global war on terror," Karzai's government in Kabul struggles to extend its control outside the capital and to subdue resurgent Taliban and Qaeda forces that have found sanctuary in Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas. And even put aside Iraq, where elections have divided power among seemingly irreconcilable ethnic and religious factions, and where more than 140,000 U.S. troops are fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Shiite militias supported by Iran.

Viewed through a broader, pan-regional prism, the Bush administration's signature campaign to spread democracy in the Arab and Islamic worlds as a long-term antidote to extremism has stalled--and is, in fact, in danger of imploding. As a recent trip by this reporter to the Middle East underscored, the gulf between Western powers and the Muslim aggrieved has never seemed wider, nor the appeal of extremists stronger.

In Lebanon, Islamist Hezbollah--denounced by Washington as a terrorist organization but nevertheless a major political player and parliamentary bloc--has paralyzed the government ever since its 2006 war with Israel. The deadlock threatens to plunge the country back into civil war.


Syria continues to host terrorist groups and is stonewalling United Nations investigations into a series of high-profile assassinations of Lebanese political figures that many experts link to Damascus.

After winning elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006, the Islamist group Hamas (which the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist organization) captured the Gaza Strip and is holding the Bush administration's Annapolis peace initiative hostage.

Meanwhile, the Islamist regime in Iran has maintained its support for both Hezbollah and Hamas, and has stepped up the arming and training of Shiite militias that are destabilizing Iraq.

Turkey, a full-fledged democracy, has repeatedly sent its military into northern Iraq to battle separatist Kurds there.


The assassination during an election campaign of the secularist former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan last December, presumably by extremists allied to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, has likewise threatened to destabilize that nuclear-armed Muslim country.

"The United States is seen by the Muslim world as prone to conflicts and double standards," Ziad Abu Amr, president of the Palestinian Council on Foreign Relations, said at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha. Directly or indirectly, he said, the United States is involved in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and between Israel and the Palestinians. The U.S. is seen as promoting democracy but supporting undemocratic regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia when that suits its interests. "And why is it that you say Iran cannot have nuclear weapons but Israel can? Why push democracy and then refuse to even talk to Hamas after it wins an election?" he asked. "This issue of double standards and the impression that the United States is really just obsessed with its own narrow interests defines how the Islamic world sees America."

The Key Geopolitical Challenge

Remarkably, it was just three years ago that President Bush unveiled a new "freedom" agenda in his second Inaugural Address, rallying the United States and its allies to a generations-spanning effort to transform the Middle East through democracy. In his soaring speech, Bush called the campaign to topple the forces of tyranny and authoritarianism a national security mandate and a moral imperative.

"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," Bush proclaimed. "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."

No one has been closer to the formulation and execution of Bush's campaign to transform the Middle East with democracy than Zalmay Khalilzad. As a member of the National Security Council, he was a strong voice for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and he subsequently served as the ambassador to Afghanistan and to Iraq. As the highest-ranking Muslim in the administration, Khalilzad still believes that, despite obvious setbacks, democracy and liberalization remain the only viable long-term solutions to the problems that bedevil the Middle East.

"Certainly the effort in Iraq has proved more challenging, expensive, and is taking longer than many anticipated, and we do need to keep improving the prospects for success there so that we can pass it to the next administration in a way that is sustainable domestically," Khalilzad, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told National Journal in a recent interview. With the most democratic constitution in the Arab world, Iraq remains an important pillar in the administration's plans to transform the region. Yet he argues that other components--finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; promoting political reforms; discouraging Iran's support for extremists; finding ways to support moderates and reformers that don't brand them as "lackeys for America"--have little if anything to do with military force.

"I still believe that shaping a more democratic future for the broader Middle East is the defining geopolitical challenge of our time, in the same way that managing the balance of power in Europe and later the Cold War with the Soviet Union were geopolitically the defining challenges of the last century," said Khalilzad, who sees the core of the challenge in the Middle East as a crisis within Islamic civilization. "There is a struggle between moderates and extremists about what it means to be Muslim and how to relate to other societies, and an argument over modernity versus tradition, which ultimately will define what it means to be Muslim. We and the rest of the world cannot afford to be indifferent to that struggle or about the future of the broader Middle East."

Discrediting Democracy

Already, Americans and Muslims alike seem weary of both the Bush administration and its Middle East freedom agenda. In a recent Gallup Poll, respondents gave Bush the highest domestic disapproval rating (69 percent) of any president in the poll's 70-year history. A clear majority of Americans want a firm timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq and oppose permanent U.S. bases there. Likewise, a majority of respondents in many European nations want their troops and NATO out of Afghanistan. The Western alliance may indeed lack the political will to sustain the two violent democracy-building efforts that the Bush administration launched in the Islamic world.

Confronted with mounting internal instability, an ascendant Shiite Iran, and empowered Islamist groups throughout the region, authoritarian Sunni Arab governments allied with the United States have cracked down on opposition groups and the press, reversing their own modest democratic reforms. Each day seems to bring news of more opposition figures or government critics arrested and imprisoned, and more restrictions imposed on the press in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.

Most Arabs emphatically reject what they perceive as a conflation of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's freedom agenda. In the 2008 Arab Public Opinion Poll co-sponsored by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, 65 percent of respondents across the Arab region doubt that the United States is serious about spreading democracy. Respondents also revealed an overwhelmingly unfavorable view of the United States (83 percent), while showing strong support for virtually any government or group that opposes Washington. Fully 67 percent approve of Iran's nuclear program, and support for Hezbollah is more than three times that for the U.S.-backed coalition government in Lebanon (30 percent versus 9 percent). When asked to list their favorite world leaders, Arab respondents singled out the heads of Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, and Al Qaeda, in that order.

"When we talk about spreading democracy in the Middle East, it's clear that most people in the region don't believe us, nor do they feel the region is more democratic after the Iraq invasion," said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Saban Center who directed the poll. "That highlights some profound contradictions that we have not come to grips with in U.S. policy. As our top priorities we've linked the 'global war on terror' to an Iraq war that is hugely unpopular in the region, and then we asked governments in the Middle East to support us against the wishes of roughly 90 percent of their own people. Those governments do that by keeping their own publics quiet."

The massive U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, Telhami said, means that the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies work closely with and support their counterparts in authoritarian Arab countries, which represent some of the most undemocratic forces in the region.

"When we talk about spreading democracy in the Middle East, it's clear that most people in the region don't believe us, nor do they feel the region is more democratic after the Iraq invasion."
-----Shibley Telhami

"We are reinforcing some of the military and intelligence institutions in these countries that have traditionally tried to weaken democratic forces," Telhami said. "That's not to say we can't do some things to promote democratic reforms, but to believe that goal was going to trump the more immediate priority of fighting this very unpopular war was unrealistic. So the next administration, from whatever party, is going to have to reassess this approach to democracy promotion. It's clearly not succeeding."

Fawaz Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He returned recently from a nearly two-year-long research project in the region as a Carnegie scholar. By linking the invasion of Iraq with the U.S. project to spread democracy in the Middle East, he argues, the Bush administration reinforced already entrenched suspicions that date back to European colonialism, the period that shaped the borders and the conspiratorial psyche of the modern Middle East.

"Muslims see this not as democracy promotion but rather as a tool to perpetuate Western hegemony over the Muslim world," said Gerges, citing a 2007 survey by Whether the perception is false or simplistic, he says, is almost beside the point. The backlash in Arab and Muslim opinion and among authoritarian regimes is real: Arab leaders and their citizens now equate democratic reforms with instability and radicalism.

"Even secular and open-minded Arabs and Muslims now believe that the United States has done considerable damage to the prospect of liberal reforms and democratization," Gerges said in an interview. "Whether Republican or Democrat, the next president will face great challenges in trying to repair these broken bridges of trust, because overwhelming majorities in every Arab and Muslim country believe the United States has launched a war not against terrorism but against Islam."

What Went Wrong

Today, it's easy to forget the high-water mark for the Bush freedom agenda, when it seemed that the toppling of the tyrannical Taliban and Saddam regimes might indeed serve as a catalyst for a democratic transformation in the region. In Afghanistan, the United Nations quickly bestowed international legitimacy on a democratically chosen Karzai regime, and the NATO allies eventually joined U.S. troops there. When Saddam fell in Iraq, Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi followed through on promises to relinquish his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Flanked to the east and west by U.S. military forces, Iran sought accommodation with the United States, behind the scenes. A backlash against the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sparked the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon and the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Syrian troops. The death of Yasir Arafat, longtime leader of the Palestinian Authority, and new elections ushered in the far more moderate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, who rejects violence.

Even such autocratic allies as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and many of the Gulf emirates responded to pressure by the Bush administration by introducing modest democratic reforms. In December 2004, 12 million Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new democratic leadership, their ink-stained fingers seeming to symbolize the dawning of a new era of liberalization in the Middle East.

"I still believe that shaping a more democratic future for the broader Middle East is the defining geopolitical challenge of our time."
----Zalmay Khalilzad

Yet over time, the Bush administration's ambitious plan to rapidly transform the region began to buckle under the compounding weight of mistakes and strategic miscalculations. With the U.S. military consumed by the invasion and tougher-than-anticipated occupation of Iraq, the Taliban and Al Qaeda regrouped to once again threaten the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lacking the international legitimacy of a U.N. mandate for the Iraq war, the United States steadily lost allies as time wore on and the mission became more onerous. In hindsight, the Iraqi elections look premature, ushering in not a new day of political reconciliation but rather an extended period of political stalemate and division. In the critical period after the elections, the United States lacked sufficient troop strength to fill the security void of a dysfunctional government, a hard lesson that prompted last year's troop "surge."

Seeing the United States increasingly bogged down in Iraq, an emboldened Iran backed Hezbollah's proxy war with Israel, the Hamas takeover of Gaza, and the Shiite militias' attacks on U.S. forces and Sunni groups in Iraq. The steady diet of conflict and bloodletting between U.S. and Muslim fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israeli troops and Muslim fighters in Lebanon--brought to the masses by newly independent Arab satellite television stations--soured the Islamic world on the entire "freedom" campaign. The negative reaction on the "Arab street" exposed the inherent problem of a Western superpower trying to forcefully transform the region. Many Muslims now see the U.S. "freedom" agenda as a latter-day "crusade" to impose Christianity and American-style democracy at the barrel of a gun.

Resistance Mounts

Bush's calls for more democracy in the Middle East were heard, said Murhaf Jouejati, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "Initially there was a lot of excitement, and political activists began demanding and even getting some small measures of reform from authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and even Syria," Jouejati said. After the Arab street was inundated with TV images of bloodshed and conflict in the region, however, "the reaction was that if this is what democracy looks like, we don't want any part of it. Privately, the authoritarian regimes also told Washington that all of this talk about democracy was making them more vulnerable and endangering the stability that the United States said it wanted, and they clamped down on even timid democratic reforms. To me, it points out the fundamental contradiction of trying to simultaneously wage war and promote democracy."

Indeed, with the region rocked by conflict and the Bush administration's focus shifting toward containing Iran, American officials largely dropped the passionate rhetoric about democracy and freedom, acknowledging the pressure that it put on allied regimes. Soon after Bush's 2005 inaugural speech, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a scheduled trip to Egypt because of the arrest of liberal reformer and democratic politician Ayman Nour, the closest challenger to autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in elections that year.

When Rice traveled to Egypt in 2007, however, she made no public mention of Egypt's crackdown on democratic forces, even though the government had thrown Nour back into prison. Mubarak did not apologize for canceling elections in 2006 after candidates representing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood won one-fifth of the seats in the Egyptian parliament the year before.

The electoral success of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and other Islamist parties in Iraq all point to another paradox of the Bush administration's drive for a rapid democratic transformation of the Middle East: The most popular and organized opposition to the entrenched autocrats comes from the Islamist parties that are the most virulently anti-American and, arguably, anti-democratic.

"I think the Bush administration got caught up in its own soaring rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East without being able to answer a couple of fundamental questions," said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. "First, what do you do about Islamist groups that seek to take tactical advantage of elections to advance nondemocratic agendas? And when you are asking autocratic Arab regimes to help the United States contain Iran, rebuild Iraq, and find a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, why should they also be willing to reform themselves out of power at the same time? We really don't have a policy answer to those questions."

A New Strategy

The next president will not only have to devise policy answers to those thorny questions but also cobble together a coherent Middle East strategy from the pieces of the fractured democratization agenda that all three major candidates have signed on to, at least rhetorically. Some clues to the key elements of such a strategy can be found in the mistakes made and the lessons learned.

* It's not a "global war on terror." The problem with that moniker is that "terror" is a tactic, not an enemy. Certainly the United States and its allies have to aggressively target Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and like-minded terrorist groups. In fact, because such groups now threaten most Western and Islamic nations, as well as virtually every regime in the Middle East except Iran and a few other outliers, the continuing fight against violent extremists can be a unifying battle cry.

The real problem with the "global war on terror" was that the phrase helped to unite America's enemies and tended to confuse potential allies about just whom the U.S. was targeting and why. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld eventually dropped the phrase, and his successor, Robert Gates, and many others tasked with forging alliances in the region shun it.

"If you want to enhance U.S. relations with the Islamic world, you have to acknowledge a core problem occurred when the U.S. launched the 'war on terror' and then connected it to Islam, leading to a distortion and stigmatization of the image of Islam," said Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, speaking at the Doha forum.

"The Bush administration's idea that you could transplant a Jeffersonian democracy to Iraq and christen it with a single election and a lot of fingers dipped in ink was ridiculous."
--Anthony Zinni

* It's a democratic evolution, not a revolution. Fixated on transforming the world, the Bush revolutionaries front-loaded the process with regime change and premature elections. The resulting upheaval empowered radicals, marginalized liberal reformers, and frightened moderate Arab regimes away from democracy.

U.S. officials and military commanders have since learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq that sustainable democracy requires laying a stable foundation by building institutions, establishing an independent judiciary and the rule of law, empowering civil-society organizations, and gradually devolving power from autocratic rulers. In other words, the painstaking work of nation-building and regime reform takes at least a generation.

"The Bush administration's idea that you could transplant a Jeffersonian democracy to Iraq and christen it with a single election and a lot of fingers dipped in ink was ridiculous," Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general who once led the U.S. Central Command, told National Journal. "Civics 101 should have alerted you that the region wasn't ready and that we first needed viable government structures, functioning political parties that everyone understood, and an educated electorate."

Such an evolutionary approach would focus on small steps toward more-representative government, said Zinni, citing reforms in Gulf States such as Kuwait, which has shifted greater powers to its parliament and given women the right to vote and run for office. "You can imagine that [reform] leading to a constitutional monarchy down the road, and later possibly to a parliamentary system," he said. "Instead, we rushed and tried to install this in one fell swoop, and that's given democracy a bad name."

* International legitimacy matters, after all. The United States paid a heavy price for invading Iraq without a U.N. resolution and with only a token coalition of the somewhat willing. In Afghanistan, where U.S. troops went in with a U.N. mandate, the United Nations took the lead in standing up a representative government that was instantly recognized by the international community, and soldiers from the entire NATO alliance joined U.S. troops.

In Iraq, by contrast, the United States has been losing allies almost from the beginning, the Iraqi government is still shunned by many of its neighbors, and some top Iraqi leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have steadfastly refused to talk to U.S. officials.

Khalilzad has been working--not always successfully--to broaden the U.N.'s role in helping Iraq's warring factions reconcile, and in engaging the broader region to support Baghdad's reintegration into the neighborhood. Given the deep anti-Americanism in the area, letting the U.N. take the lead is an initiative that the next U.S. administration will surely want to consider.

"The United Nations has certain advantages that make it a more appropriate entity to play that role than the United States," Khalilzad said in a recent talk. "First, the U.N. can talk to some people we don't talk to, or we can't talk to, or that don't want to talk with us. Second, the U.N. has advantages as a convener--it is regarded as a neutral body in getting people to meet. Third, the U.N. has a lot of experience with such situations in other countries where there are differences of view between people."

* Reclaim the mantle of peacemaker. By now even top administration officials privately concede that President Bush's policy of disengaging from the active role of mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermined efforts to promote democracy in the overwhelmingly Arab and Islamic Middle East. In the recent Arab Opinion Poll, 86 percent of respondents identified the Arab-Israeli conflict as among their top three concerns, an increase in the importance of the Palestinian issue among Arabs, despite all the other turmoil in the region.

With its Annapolis initiative and the 11th-hour push for a two-state solution this year, the Bush administration seems to have belatedly gotten the message. The next president would do well to take note of that hard lesson: Conflict resolution is the surest way to restore America's credibility in the region.

"If I had only one piece of advice for the next president, it would be to start a full-court press for a peaceful resolution from the moment you're in office, and don't quit until you succeed," Zinni said. "Don't wait until your last year in office. We need to stay engaged for as long as it takes, no matter what violence the extremists in the region create to try and derail the process."

* Quietly empower moderates and reformers. Anti-Americanism is so widespread in the Middle East that any overt U.S. support for moderates and liberal reformers risks assigning them guilt by association. Ways can be found, however, to back reform groups without leaving many fingerprints.

The tasks are easy to identify. Work through nongovernmental organizations to promote human rights, minority rights, and the empowerment of women. Provide technology--cellphones, personal digital assistants, computers, Internet access--to civil-society groups that enables them to organize and to bypass state-run media. Promote economic revitalization to help provide jobs for the region's demographic bubble of the young and restless. Direct the Pentagon to use its military-to-military engagements in the region to help soldiers educate their counterparts on the proper role of the military in open societies.

The good news is that hope is still in the air. In the Gallup World Poll--the largest sampling ever done, representing 90 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims--vast majorities of those surveyed said that what they still admire most about the West is its political freedoms and liberty, and that they yearn for greater self-determination.

In her new book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, longtime foreign-affairs correspondent Robin Wright profiles the reformers and change agents of the Middle East, including a Syrian activist who spent 18 years in solitary confinement yet still speaks out against the tyranny of the Assad regime; Egyptian women who have organized as independent election monitors; and an Iranian cleric who has challenged the dictatorial powers of the supreme leader in Tehran. Wright chronicles protests that drew tens of thousands of Jordanians to the streets to reject Al Qaeda after a bombing there, and like numbers of Lebanese who forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops after the Hariri assassination.

"Iraq and the chaos it brings have taken a terrible toll, and because of the profound disillusionment with the United States we'll probably have to stand back now and not try to push too hard. But I trust my instincts," Wright said at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. The political dynamics of the region are changing, she said, and new public voices, daring publications, and noisy protests are sprouting up in nearly every country. "The issue in the Middle East is no longer whether to engage in transformation and change but how to get there," Wright said. "Something has begun."

This article appears in the May 10, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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