Of all the Bush administration’s failings in Iraq, the one neither officially acknowledged by the United States nor properly assessed by the international community is the fiasco of democratization. True, the administration appears to have abandoned its drive to democratize the Arab Middle East; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice no longer lectures Egyptian audiences about the lessons of integration in the American South. But few in Washington are talking about the failure of the democratization program, whether in Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world.
The only lesson the administration appears to have learned from this fiasco is to attempt to undo its democratizing mistakes by force.
In recent weeks we have witnessed Hamas’s violent reaction in Gaza to an attempt by Fatah units — trained and backed by the United States — to remove the Islamists from power after they won an American sponsored and certified parliamentary election in January 2006. In Lebanon and Iraq, too, Washington is arming and training friendly forces to oppose unfriendly extremists that it helped get elected. In Lebanon, it’s the army versus Hezbollah; in Iraq, it’s the anti-Sadrist Shi’ites.
American efforts to foster democracy in the Arab world have backfired horribly. Unlike the occupation of Iraq, however, this was at least in principle a worthy cause — albeit one abused out of ignorance and hubris.
For all the failing of Arab democratization to date, Arab democrats are courageous people who deserve support. There is nothing in the Arab DNA that contradicts the notion that if done right, genuine democratization can eventually succeed in Ramallah, Cairo and Damascus.
The next American president to try a hand at fostering Arab democracy would do well to heed the lessons of the Bush administration’s many mistakes. Here are 10 preliminary thoughts on the lessons to be learned.
First, democracy is not a prerequisite to Israeli-Arab peace. Natan Sharansky, Benjamin Netanyahu and their neoconservative friends in America got it wrong. Israel has stable peace agreements with non-democratic Egypt and Jordan, and terrorism and mistrust with democratic Palestine and Lebanon. Next time, leave the Israeli angle out of the list of rationales for democratization.
Second, don’t conquer a country in order to democratize it. Iraq is most decidedly not post-World War II Germany or Japan. The United States was right to give Kuwait back to its ruling family in 1991 without pressing its democratization demands too heavily. Yes, it took 15 years before the regime allowed women to vote, but the alternatives were simply worse.
Third, beware of expatriates with agendas. The Ahmed Chalabis of the Middle East are its scoundrels, not its saviors.
Fourth, don’t expose true Arab — or Iranian — democrats to government abuse by too openly embracing and funding them. The Bush administration’s appropriation of a relatively small amount of dollars to support dissidents in Iran has sparked a brutal crackdown there that has set back democracy and incarcerated good people.
Fifth, give priority to building civil society institutions rather than holding hasty elections. This would have been the preferred path in Iraq, where elections have merely enfranchised militias and entrenched religious and ethnic divides. This means a much more measured approach than that employed by the United States in Iraq — perhaps something like European Union programs for building civil society in North Africa, however slow and cumbersome they seem.
Sixth, ban armed groups from elections. Of some 145 parties running in Iraq’s last elections, all but one were associated with militias, and in Palestine both Fatah and Hamas have armed wings. This may mean keeping out of elections some friendly groups, such as the two main Kurdish parties in Iraq, but unless all participating groups forego arms, the elections could end up being counterproductive.
Seventh, have strong and loyal national security forces in place before democratizing. Iraq, again, is a negative case in point: The army was disbanded even as the American occupiers set about democratizing the country.
Eighth, build on locally accepted traditions and practices — even if they are less than democratic — rather than importing unfamiliar models. A historic monarchy might conceivably be a better way to start than turning an entire country into a single constituency, such as was done in Iraq. A Lebanese-style confessional system leaves a great deal to be desired, but it could be the most workable model in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious polity.
Ninth, allow Islamists — unarmed, with a proven commitment to democracy — into the process. In the highly constrained parliaments of Morocco, Kuwait and Jordan, this appears to work. In Egypt it is more problematic, not the least because the Mubarak regime energetically suppresses secular as well as Islamist opponents.
Tenth, and most importantly, once Washington has really applied the lessons learned from the current democratization fiasco in the Middle East, it must respect the outcome.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.