The Strategic Implications of Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Middle East

By Zambelis, Chris | Parameters, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

The Strategic Implications of Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Middle East


Zambelis, Chris, Parameters


The expansion of democracy in Europe, Latin America, and East Asia over the last 30 years has spurred extensive debate on the internal and external factors that facilitate political reform. In this context, many observers view the greater Middle East and Islamic world as an anomaly in that authoritarian rule continues to dominate, albeit in varying degrees. The spread of democracy elsewhere set in motion internal reforms that contributed to greater openness and multiparty competition in the Middle East during the 1990s. Ultimately, the drive toward more substantive reform was cut short, as incumbent leaders did not risk endangering their positions by embarking on genuine democratization processes. (1)

Despite the end of the Soviet threat, US relations toward the Middle East continued to be driven by Cold War calculations. Supporting and guaranteeing the security of friendly autocratic regimes to ensure access to the region's energy resources and favorable pricing mechanisms, containing the rise of regional powers with the potential to threaten US interests, deterring aspiring powers such as a revamped Russia, China, and even Europe from gaining a foothold in the region, supporting Israel as a surrogate of US power and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, nonproliferation, Islamic radicalism, and terrorism took precedence over all else.

In contrast, Washington paid scant attention to the question of democracy in the region--or lack thereof--adopting a markedly different approach compared to its engagement of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Latin America, East Asia, and sub-Sahara Africa. This posture exemplifies the ongoing dilemma facing American Presidents of whether to subjugate realist-based interests to Washington's democratic ideals.

The 9/11 tragedy forced Washington to reevaluate its posture toward the region. The attacks amplified the threat of international terrorism unlike ever before and highlighted the deep-seated anger, frustration, and resentment harbored by millions of Muslims and the extreme lengths to which a minority of radicals would to go to further their cause. Rooting out and killing terrorists everywhere emerged as a pillar of America's post-9/11 national security strategy. (2)

Draining the Swamp

In addition to initiating an aggressive strategy that attacks terrorists and their sponsors, the Bush Administration determined that the long-term defense of the American homeland rests on draining the pool of recruits available to organizations such as al Qaeda by eliminating the conditions that breed extremism.

Washington attributes the spread of Islamic radicalism to the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East. It acknowledges that the status quo in the region is illegitimate, unacceptable, and unsustainable, given the failure of incumbent autocratic regimes to address social and economic problems and meet the basic demands of their citizens. As a consequence, the issues of reform and democracy were elevated to a level of critical importance. (3) In doing so, the Administration reversed a pillar of American policy predicated on the notion that pro-US authoritarian regimes served to protect against radicalism and terrorism. Traditional US policy toward the region was meant to ensure stability and enhance American security. The 9/11 attacks proved the opposite. Indeed, promoting democracy has become a strategic imperative in the Bush Administration's war on terrorism.

This strategy marks a dramatic shift from longstanding American policy, at least in rhetoric. Washington is accustomed to dealing with compliant authoritarian regimes in places such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, all staunch allies that flout public opinion when it comes to maintaining close ties to the United States. (4) In contrast, citizens in democracies can think and act freely in that they can question their leaders and hold them to account without fear. …

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