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.
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.
We argue that the U.S. and its partners now need to consider a very different approach to Middle East democracy assistance.
Conventional democracy promotion activities tend to focus on the process and “retail” aspects of democratic politics—things like elections, political party training, get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaigns, and civil society enhancement. While these are undoubtedly important, they are insufficient to deliver lasting reforms. Authoritarianism in the Arab world has proven time and time again—even in supposedly post-revolutionary settings such as Egypt today—that it can weather the annoyances of elections and civil society.