Many Americans remain wary, if not hostile, to the idea of democracy promotion in the Middle East. The Iraq War, which wasn’t launched to bring people power to Mesopotamia, is seen by most critics as the great catastrophe of Americans who wanted to export representative government. The failure of the “Arab Spring” to produce anything but bloodshed and continuing autocracy beyond Tunisia, where the region-wide revolt started in 2010 and democracy has held, has further reinforced the view that the United States really shouldn’t back a rootless, convulsive cause. The American right sees Muslims as a bad Enlightenment bet; the left is more critical of Middle Eastern tyrannies (except in Iran and the Palestinian territories) but is extremely averse to “nation-building” in Islamic lands.
But unrest in the Middle East didn’t start with elections. The region remains tumultuous in great part because the legitimacy of dictatorship has collapsed. Fear of chaos, which autocrats always encourage, gives rulers some breathing space — but not a lot, which is why autocracies have become more severe in the region. Iran’s theocracy lives in constant fear of popular upheavals. Egypt is a ticking, bankrupt time bomb as the army shuts down all opposition. Political reform is way overdue in the ever-profligate, increasingly authoritarian Gulf states — especially in Saudi Arabia, where the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has converted an unpleasant, arch-conservative kingdom into a clumsy but nasty surveillance state.
Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a different case: An Islamic populist has used an institutionally weak democracy to enthrone himself as pasha. The good news: Close to half of Turkey’s electorate wants to see the country return to a more liberal path. Democratic practices, however controlled by Kemalists and Islamists, have created aspirations and expectations that authoritarians can’t dismiss.
And if we are serious about defanging jihadism, political pluralism in the Middle East is surely an essential part of that process. Democracy doesn’t necessarily produce contented societies, but it does fundamentally alter notions of the sacred and the profane, especially the lawfulness of violence. Violent Islamist militants have feared Muslims voting: Islam is acutely uncomfortable with the idea that a majority of Muslims can be bad Muslims. The Nile Valley’s democratic experiment, which was well on the way to rendering a harsh judgment against elected Islamists, was short-circuited by Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s coup in 2013.
American counterterrorist aid to Arab states has overwhelmingly been premised on an elitist contention: that with enough brute force, ruling regimes can control the radical threat. The Trump administration certainly wants to believe that religious moderation can arrive without political reform. Hence the White House’s enthusiasm for Sissi and Saudi Arabia’s enfant terrible, the crown prince.
Yet dictators commanding an obedient clergy to “reform” the faith have distanced the ulema, the clergy, from the faithful and opened a vast realm to dissidents. “Westernizing” tyrannies in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, which destroyed the customs and civility of the old order, naturally produced violent Islamists. What the Trump administration is in effect hoping for, after the horrors of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, is that “modernizing,” anti-Islamist authoritarians now will have better results.
But Syrian Sunni society hasn’t become more secular or religiously quiescent after experiencing jihadist violence. (The savagery of the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad has been much worse.) Iraq remains a hopeful wild card precisely because its democratic politics, though ugly, have been resilient, which means secular and religious Shiites and Sunnis still build coalitions. Scarred and shamed by Saddam Hussein’s totalitarianism, the country’s Shiite clergy have staunchly backed popular sovereignty.
American foreign policy in the region is now centered on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and yet the White House has, so far, given minimal attention to supporting democracy where millions have hit the streets for the cause. Criticisms of Tehran’s primary rivals, the Sunni Gulf Arab autocracies, are muted. Trump and senior officials say nary a word about Sissi’s massive prison camps. Minus little slaps, the administration ignores Erdogan’s tyranny.
A sensible American foreign policy would reverse course. With Arab rulers, we would clearly acknowledge that unchecked autocracy brings on revolution and religious extremism. With Turkey, Iraq and Tunisia, the lessons of post-World War II history apply: Many democracies have emerged, grown stronger, sometimes only survived because the United States invested in their defense. And “principled realism” ought to bear down on Iran. It is increasingly clear that Washington is, at best, prepared only to delay the mullahs’ acquisition of nuclear weapons. Republicans and Democrats really ought to take more seriously the Iranian people’s long quest for self-government.
The United States, a declining power, isn’t going to transform the Middle East. But it can still aid a cause that could restore some dignity, pride and purpose to the region. Authoritarianism, however revamped by billionaire princes and sheikhs, isn’t going to bring stability, security, religious reform or basic decency. Westerners need to be more honest and humble about their own bloody past — the long, tortuous road to democracy. Muslims need time — and fewer Western apologists for dictatorship.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.