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Mainstream, VOL L, No 19, April 28, 2012

Arab Spring — Implications for the United States

Monday 30 April 2012


The wave of pro-democracy protests witnessed recently has fundamentally transformed the political dynamics of the Arab world. The push for representative democracy is irreversible and it would be unwise to try and impede it. The current political scenario in West Asia is prima-rily driven by internal realities, but it is also a reflection of past US policy choices not to support democratic reforms. Throughout the region, the US actively supported autocratic regimes and gave the green signal for campaigns of repression. According to various surveys, the region is swept by anti-American sentiments. Much of the anti-American sentiments among Arabs arise not because of any hatred of whatever America stands for but because they aspire to American values and freedoms which have been systematically crushed on the back of US money, arms and training. For years the West led by the US preferrd to deal with autocratic strongmen instead of coming to terms with the region’s socio-political complexities. Democracy was an inconvenience and hence it was subverted. The Arab spring exposes the hypocrisy of US foreign policy. The US finds itself on the wrong side of history struggling to cope with the crises in the Arab world.

Hypocrisy of US Foreign Policy

HISTORICALLY, empires have relied on local autocrats to curb popular passions and the US is no exception. The US has so ofen compromised its ideals and values for stable relations with autocrats in the region. It quite often turned its face away so as not to antagonise friendly regimes and statregically important allies. The US has always subordinated freedoms and aspirations in the region to geo-political and commercial interests. For every two hesitant steps forward, Washington took one frightened step back. The most tragic manifestation of US hypocrisy was the Algerian debacle of the early nineties when the US stood silently while the staunchly secular military cancelled elections after an Islamic party won a parliamentary majority. Obsessed with the West Asia peace process and secondly with Iran, it took the West Asian stability for granted. In pursuing short-term tactical policies of buttres-sing the domestic and regional stability, successive US Administations betrayed not just the popular yearnings to dislodge local tyrants but also their own ideals like American Declaration of Indepen-dence and Abraham Lincoln’s historic Gettysburg Address. Significantly, they are not only American treasure; they are the common heritage of mankind. The gap between the lofty ideals of liberty and freedom in President George Bush’s second Inaugural Address in January 2005 and the reality of his ties to authori-tarian regimes was particularly pronounced. He affirmed: “As long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny... violence will gather and multiply destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a martial threat... The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.”And yet the passage was at odds with the actual record of his Administration. In short, America appeared determined to prove Churchill‘s cutting remark that the Americans can always be depended on to do the right thing—having tried to do everything else first. Ironically, President Bush was forced to admit that “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty”.

Promoting Democratisation to Combat Terrorism

THE US largely ignored West Asia as a priority for democracy assistance throughout the Cold War period. The region for the most part remained left out of the overall US policy for providing support to establish democratic political systems around the world. Democracy was largely absent from the diplomatic dialogue between the US and its allies in the region. However, the events of 9/11 served as a catalyst for a new era of demo-cracy promotion in West Asia. Two months after the attacks, Under Secretary for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky argued: ”The advancement of human rights and democracy... the bedrock of our war on terrorism.“ President George W. Bush in his Inaugural Address said: ”America’s vital intersts and our deepest beliefs are now one. So is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” However, this belief contadicted the US policy in West Asia. In fact, the Bush Administration’s commitment to follow its goals in the region remained debatable. Skeptics doubted whether policies aimed at democratisation were ever pursued seriously, given the US reliance in the war on terrorism on non-democratic partners such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The US policies and assistance raised serious doubts about how much the Bush Administration was willing
to back democratisation in West Asia as part of its anti-terrorist strategy. In fact despite the President’s pledge, the American effort failed to produce a coherent and effective American strategy to promote Arab democratisation. This reflected not simply the difficulty of overriding what Bush himself acknowledged as “sixty years of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East”. More important was the policy’s weak implementation which showed ambivalance of American attitudes towards democracy in this troubled part of the globe. It is worth stressing that democratisation has always been primarily an indigenous process often generated and sustained by courageous men and women within their societies. Democracy imposed only from the outside rarely succeeds as the 1990s military invasion of Haiti demonstrated. Demo-cratic politics cannot be imposed or implanted from outside the region but must be embraced indigenously by both the political leaders and masses. In brief, the US Government failed miserably to convince activists espousing democracy and human rights in the region that the US was genuinely intersted in promoting democratisation.

Implications for America

HOW would the emerging democracies in the Arab world deal with an intrusive American presence and its expansive regional agenda? Free elections do not necessarily bring forth groups willing to accommodate a US presence. Prospective democracies will not behave as compliant agents of the American empire. On issues ranging from the Arab-Israel peace process to nuclear prolife-ration, the US may find a more democratic West Asia less prone to its mandates. Freed from the restraints of authoritarianism, the nationalist Arab masses are unlikely to acclaim the merits of American imperium and embrace its priorities. In other words, while the spread of democratic rule in the region is likely to stabilise this volatile region, it will extract costs in terms of key US preferences. For instance, a more democratic West Asia may not serve the cause of Arab-Israel peace process and the integration of Israel into the regional order. The region’s public opinion continues to reject Israel as an agent of an alien and pernicious ideology and a usurper of Arab lands. Such rejectionist views go far beyond the Islamist parties who are the chief opponents of the peace process. The attempt to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction has been one of America’s central preoccupations. However, potential Arab democracies would face enormous popular pressure for achieving military parity with Israel. A public that complains about inequa-lity of an Israeli nuclear monopoly is likely to press the elected leaders towards acquiring the strategic weapon. In other words, the unresolved Arab-Israel conflict and the inevitable surge of nationa-lism that democratic polities experience would further complicate America’s attempts to reduce the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The dramatic explosion of pent-up anger in the Arab street implies that the West has to explore the right balance among popular will, regional stability, containing threat to Israel and safe-guarding economic intersts. In order to reconcile American intersts and ideals, a reassessment of US policy towards the Arab street protests is both urgent and necessary. In the first place, the West’s problems within the region will not end unless and until US policy-makers recognise and act on the acknowledgement that dictatorship and military rule are the problems, and not the solution, and that democracy, howsoever messy and untidy it might be, is always preferable. As a starting point, the US should state as a matter of policy that Washington is not opposed to engaging non-violent Islamist parties and has no problem as such with Islamists assuming power through free elections. The sincerity of America’s intentions can only be demonstrated through a credible pro-democracy strategy that is honest about the difficult choices it requires. US policy towards West Asia should cautiously balance American idealist values and realist interests and prudently applying the lessons of recent history the US Government needs to convince democratic and human rights activists that it is genuinely inte-rested in promoting democratisation—even if that produces short-term setbacks for the US policy objectives. Understanding the views of estranged groups will help the US in realising its policy lapses that could be rectified.

In order to build credibility with Arab demo-cracies, US foreign policy should communicate to the Arab governments that states that protect free expression and association and change the distri-bution of political power will enjoy better relations with the US than those which talk about reform but fail to implement it. It is worth remembering that America as the lone superpower still has powerful carrots to offer. Last but not the least, the US should recognise that promoting democracies, including holding elections, will not necessarily produce regimes that are sympathetic to US policy intersts in the short term. As the regimes become more accountable to their people, they may be less willing to back US policies.
The US has legitimate concern should Islamists come to power. But anti-Israel outcomes must not be made self-fulfilling by adopting anti-Arab policies. The democratic future of 340 million Arabs can no longer be surrendered to the conve-nience of seven million Israelis. The West should somehow reconcile its commitment to the Jewish state with its own democratic convictions.

Dr Saleem Kidwai belongs to the American Studies Division, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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