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.

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.

What is needed are more systematic reforms focused on fundamental institutions. These include things like constraining the military’s role in civilian domains of governance, deep reform in the security and justice sectors including law enforcement and policing, and comprehensive “renovation” of the civil service sector. These are large-scale, long-term, and expensive undertakings that far transcend the modest parameters of most U.S. democracy promotion programs.

In our article, we make the case for a new Multilateral Endowment for Reform (MER) that would tie significant levels of financial assistance—in the billions of dollars—to reform commitments and benchmarked implementation performance by partner nations. The idea is to provide a real incentive for countries to embark down a path to deeper and more enduring political reforms while retaining the ability to pull back funding if they do not deliver.

Genuine multilateralism is a hallmark characteristic of the proposed Endowment. While the U.S. would need to take the lead in establishing such an entity, its successful implementation would require significant contributions of money and expertise from other G-8 and European nations, emerging economies in Asia and Latin America, and new regional powers such as Turkey and Qatar. This kind of approach would help to spread the financial burden at a time when new money for foreign assistance is hard to come by in Washington, as well as to reduce the political sensitivities inevitably generated by a democracy fund wearing an exclusively U.S. face.

Rather than giving up on Middle East democracy, this is the time to double down. Since the start of the Arab Spring, the U.S. has failed to think big and deliver an ambitious policy response worthy of these momentous events. If recent events have taught us anything, it is that “stability,” pursued through traditional means, is an illusion. Weak states and a new kind of post-Arab Spring authoritarianism may be with us for decades to come. This unfortunate reality requires moving well beyond short-term crisis management and devising a new set of policy tools—on an appropriate scale—to seriously address these challenges. It would prove an odd twist if one of the legacies of the Arab Spring is viewing, and acting as if, democratization and security are discrete, even contradictory goals. It is time to push back.