The U.S. Is Giving Up on Middle East Democracy—and That's a Mistake

In prioritizing security over democracy promotion, the Obama administration is failing to address the root causes of extremism in the region.
A tattered poster of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at a gas station in Cairo. (Reuters/Louafi Larbi)

With the rise of al-Qaeda, increasingly repressive regimes, and weak, even collapsing states, the Arab Spring is looking more and more like a nightmare for U.S. security interests. Perhaps, then, it makes some sense that the Obama administration would increase security assistance to the Middle East, from 69 percent of the total budget request for 2014 to 80 percent. However, this also entails a significant reduction in democracy assistance to the region, which will drop from $459.2 million to $298.3 million. Congress might further deepen these cuts.

But to look at this as a security problem risks conflating cause and effect. Today’s Middle East is a product, at least in part, of failed democratization, and one of the reasons it failed was the timid, half-hearted support of the Obama administration.

That the U.S. is fundamentally limited in its ability to influence the internal politics of Arab states has been a consistent theme within the Obama administration as well as among analysts. No one denies that there are limits to what the U.S. can (or can’t) do; the question, however, is what those limits are.

A growing academic literature points to the significant impact Western leverage and “linkage” can have on democratic transitions. During the “third wave” of democratization, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way write, “it was an externally driven shift in the cost of suppression, not changes in domestic conditions, that contributed most centrally to the demise of authoritarianism in the 1980s and 1990s.” They find that “states’ vulnerability to Western democratization pressure… was often decisive.”

Western democratization pressure will be less effective in the Middle East because of the more existential nature of ideological divides, but it is still important. In a new article in The Washington Quarterly, we argue that the various attempted revolutions of 2011 and 2012 demonstrate the important, even decisive, role of Western nations as well as regional actors, many of whom themselves are dependent on Western security provisions and other support.

The Democracy Report

Ironically, three years after the uprisings began, the Obama administration has ended up embracing a narrow, security-focused approach to the Arab Spring, something that Obama often criticized his predecessors for doing. To be sure, many of the region’s continuing security problems, particularly in Iraq, are a result of the Bush administration’s disastrous policies. However, it is also worth noting that President Bush acknowledged the existence of a “tyranny-terror” link—the notion that the root causes of extremism and terrorism can be found in the region’s enduring lack of democracy. Those claims are no less relevant today.

In the failure of peaceful politics and democracy, best exemplified by the military coup in Egypt and the ongoing civil war in Syria, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups have been given a gift. Their narrative—that violence is the only option that works—is stronger than ever. Facing this mounting challenge, Obama has now further de-prioritized democracy assistance. Outside of its commendable efforts to strike a deal with Iran and put forward a framework agreement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration’s approach to the region is characterized almost entirely by ad-hoc crisis management and traditional counterterrorism approaches. Its one larger-scale reform initiative—a half-hearted proposal for a Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund—has yet to see the light of day and likely never will due to the convoluted way it was presented to Congress.

Presented by

Shadi Hamid and Peter Mandaville


Shadi Hamid is a correspondent for The Atlantic, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Peter Mandaville is a professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a former member of the State Department’s policy-planning staff.

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