Careful What You Wish For

Dov S. Zakheim was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) from 2001 to 2004.

The successful national elections in Palestine and Iraq, along with local elections in Saudi Arabia and continuing demonstrations in Beirut reminiscent of those in Kiev not long ago, point to an upheaval in the Middle East. Yet in none of these places is it clear that democracy will endure. It isn’t even apparent that Iraq’s elections mark the beginning of a secular trend toward freedom of speech, assembly and religion. After all, these elections were not the first in Iraq’s history, and the previous ones were followed by a series of nasty dictatorships, of which Saddam Hussein’s was the most recent and nastiest. The leading candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, is a member of the U.S.-backed interim government and head of the Shiite-based Islamic Dawa Party. He is a staunch advocate of Islamic values and has ties to Iran. It’s anyone’s guess what his policies might be if he does become prime minister.

Iraq is not the only Middle Eastern state to have conducted experiments in democracy only to see them fail. Iran had a short-lived progressive constitution and parliament in the first decade of the 20th century. Lebanon’s democratic experience lasted longer, about 30 years, before it collapsed in civil war in the mid-1970s.

Why has democracy never taken hold in the region? One reason is that the Middle East, like southeastern Europe, was under Ottoman rule for centuries. That left it with a legacy of corruption and autocracy that is hard to shake. Another is that Middle Eastern societies have a traditional representative system, the diwaniya, that enables ordinary citizens to take their grievances directly to their leaders.

Yet another reason is that authority is central to Muslim culture. Islam has never undergone a reformation that challenged religious authority in a thoroughgoing manner and advocated progressive change. It’s noteworthy that Christianity’s Reformation took hold in its West European branch, Roman Catholicism. Democracy has had a more difficult time flourishing in lands where the Eastern Orthodox church has predominated, Russia being the most prominent recent example. On the other hand, reform in Islam has not always been progressive: Fundamentalist Wahhabism is a reform movement within Sunni Islam.

Even if democracy were to take root in the Middle East, there is no guarantee that the United States would be any less frustrated in the region than it is today. Not all democracies are alike, nor have they always conducted policies that the U.S. prefers. For decades, India, the world’s largest democracy and now a close U.S. friend, was a vocal critic of U.S. policies. Despite U.S. attempts to limit nuclear proliferation, India conducted a nuclear test in 1974 and exploded a nuclear weapon in 1998. Pakistan, at the time under civilian, nominally democratic rule, exploded its nuclear weapon shortly thereafter. Similarly, other democracies have not supported U.S. interests, at times even flouting them. Examples include several Western European states during the Iraq war, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and, three decades ago, Salvador Allende’s Chile.


Arab democracies may be hostile to the United States. Elections in the Middle East could yield Islamist leaderships as they nearly did in Algeria. For many religious Muslims, U.S. society represents values they truly abhor, no matter how many sodas they drink, no matter if they like to wear jeans or baseball caps.

Democratic values are the bedrock of decent societies, and are the best hope for people to live in dignity, prosperity and security. Middle Easterners are as capable of realizing these values as people elsewhere. We should nourish opportunities for democratic change such as those that have emerged in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and, for that matter, Afghanistan.

As for the rest of the Middle East, however, we should proceed with caution. Some of the region’s younger monarchs, all friends of the U.S., are creating democratic polities with strong monarchies modeled after Thailand and Spain. We should encourage them to realize their aspirations but allow them to move according to their timetables, not ours.

We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that it is not merely democracies that we encourage, but friendly democracies. If we push for democracy too quickly, we may find that we do not like what we have helped to create. If we are forced to choose between hostile but democratically elected governments and friendly autocrats who are prepared to support transition to more open societies, we might do better pursuing the latter course.

More than 200 years ago, France saw itself as the spearhead of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and marketed its ideas via the bayonets of its revolutionary armies. After two decades of nearly incessant warfare, those ideas were crushed by reactionary regimes throughout Europe, and France reverted to autocratic rule. It took Western Europe 130 more years to become fully free and democratic. We should be careful to do nothing that would cause the Middle East to have to wait anywhere near that long.