Fifth Estate

The Problem with Democracy:
Middle Eastern democracies are proving more difficult than dictators.

Since the initial stages of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the consensus in Western attitudes has been, simply, that democracy will solve everything. Autocratic dictatorships clearly have no respect for human rights, the thinking goes, because the right to self-determination is the most fundamental right of all.

But the Western world is discovering that, at least in the early stages, there is far less stability in emerging democracies than in the dictatorial regimes they replaced. As David Kirkpatrick pointed out in a July story in the New York Times, this inevitably leads to a conflict between values and interests.

While the U.S. and other Western countries espouse the democratic values of self-determination and rule by and for the people, when it comes to diplomatic relations, their interests are best served when dealing with a stable, predictable foreign government. Fledgling democracies, where the will of the people may be uncertain, capricious, or at least developing and not yet fully formed, are neither stable nor predictable. As Kirkpatrick points out, at least when dealing with a dictator, it’s clear who is in charge and who to talk to for diplomatic relations.

Writing for the geopolitical affairs website Stratfor in July, Robert D. Kaplan argues that American support for Middle Eastern autocrats over the past half-century actually contributed to peace and stability in the region, even if the regimes they recognized were dictatorships:

Support for moderate Arab monarchs and secular dictatorships were part of a successful Cold War strategy for which there is no need to apologize. It helped secure the sea lines of communication between the oil-rich Middle East and the West, on which the well being of Americans depended. What was the United States supposed to have done? Overthrow a slew of regimes across a vast swath of the Earth for decades on end because those states did not conform to America’s own historical experience and political system?

Kaplan also points out a less philosophical, but more practical reason for practicing diplomacy with dictators — the cost: “A basic rule of foreign policy pragmatism is that you must work with the material at hand: because it is dangerous and costly to replace regimes thousands of miles away from home when they do not correspond to your values or liking.”

The democratic right to self-determination now presents the people of these countries with choices they have never had before. As former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said in a July article in the Financial Times, nowhere are these choices more apparent than in Egypt, where President Morsi had simultaneous invitations to visit Tehran and Washington. Livni says this symbolizes the crossroads Egypt and other emerging democracies face: freedom and democracy down one path and, down the other, the rise of Islamic extremists who view the emergence of democracy with suspicion and derision.

As Kirkpatrick points out, the U.S. maintained a balance of power in the Middle East through diplomatic relations with the autocrats that governed the dictatorships for decades. The emergence of extremist organizations such as al Qaeda was a backlash against the cordial relations these dictatorships held with the U.S. What, then, is Washington to do if the prevailing sentiment in these emerging democracies is to support the extremists who are outspoken opponents of the U.S.?

The first democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia brought to power Islamist parties historically opposed to U.S. policy in the region, Kirkpatrick notes. Which means in Egypt, if the U.S. hopes to pry control from the military, its alternative is the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood.

The Western concept that democracy will solve everything naively overlooks the possibility that emerging Arab democracies will freely choose to elect governments that oppose the U.S. and its Western policies and influence. Trading dictatorships for democracies may conform to Western values, but it complicates Western interests.

— The Global Intelligence


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