Will Democracy in the Middle East Make Us Safer?

Aiming High


In "Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?" (September/October 2005), Gregory Gause posits a one-dimensional solution to a multidimensional problem. Unfortunately, he also incorrectly claims that President George W. Bush has done the same, in believing that promoting democracy can alone defeat terrorism. Gause writes, "The Bush administration and its defenders contend that this push for Arab democracy will not only spread American values but also improve U.S. security. As democracy grows in the Arab world, the thinking goes, the region will stop generating anti-American terrorism."

The administration, of course, has never prescribed democracy as the single-dose remedy to the terrorist disease. On the contrary, the president's 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism features a broad range of antiterrorist measures. The strategy also declares essential the coordinated deployment of all the instruments of statecraft, at home and abroad. President Bush underscored this during his September 15, 2005, speech to world leaders at the UN in New York. He spoke about confronting threats directly, engaging the enemy, disrupting terrorist networks, denying enemies safe haven, building international coalitions, forging treaties that reinforce the rule of law, denying the enemy weapons of mass destruction, and changing the conditions that terrorists exploit.

Such conditions include, among others, a shifting mix of international geopolitics, economics, religion, ideology, ignorance, cultural stress, and intolerant political systems that offer little room for political expression or personal freedom. This environment enables terrorist leaders to advance their own agenda, to exert influence, to recruit, and to escalate local conflicts. Tyranny does afford our terrorist enemies an advantage.

Terrorism-conducive conditions can converge in specific geographic areas, often in illiberal societies and lawless or nondemocratic states, where the enemy can establish safe haven. Tribal regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, illiberal and undergoverned by legitimate state authority, provide al Qaeda leaders such refuge. Illiberal and ambitious Iran sponsors international terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, as proxy forces and hinders cooperation within the region on anti-al Qaeda policies. Nondemocratic and illiberal Syria does the same. Countries that lack functioning law enforcement structures in part or all of their territories provide lawless spaces in which terrorists can operate.

Of course, terrorists have also found space to operate in democratic states, as Gause notes. Democracies, however, have an advantage in their ability to rise to the occasion and implement needed reforms with popular consent. States with liberal institutions and democratic systems can thereby respond to terror with greater public support and, in the long run, greater effectiveness than authoritarian states can.

For example, in the past, the United States has imposed structural restrictions on itself, encumbering the flow of information between intelligence services and law enforcement organizations and among local, state, and federal agencies. Since the 9/11 attacks, however, the United States, using the democratic process, has moved aggressively to "give this nation a broad and coordinated homeland defense," as President Bush recently put it. Similarly, the United Kingdom reacted to the July 7, 2005, bombings in London through democratic means, promptly enacting new laws against incitement to terrorism and encouraging civic society to engage disaffected Muslim youth.

Counterterrorism actions in democracies reflect the will of citizens, and citizens feel integrated into the overall actions of their government. In contrast, fighting terror with oppression eventually leads to more of both.

There are other global benefits accruing from democratization. The free flow of information within and among democracies builds stronger, more flexible, more dynamic societies that are better positioned to fight an enemy employing international terror as a tactic. The global war on terror requires a global response, and democracies working together enhance one another's responses far more effectively than do nondemocratic states, where the flow of intelligence and trust is limited. New and emerging democracies not only provide viable, legitimate recourse for their own citizens' grievances, but also offer greater opportunities for counterterrorism partnerships with other democracies. Interdependent, networked liberal institutions throughout the globe, reinforced by the structure of democratic governments, provide the best means to defeat the interdependent, networked terrorist cells of radical extremists who seek to destroy democracy and, in fact, the nation-state system itself.

Not surprisingly, the terrorist enemy opposes democracy, because he understands the grave threat it poses to his plans. Al Qaeda leaders have specifically railed against the notion of democracy, seeking to label it as heretical, and terrorists have killed innocent Afghans simply for having voter registration cards. The people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere understand and appreciate the importance of democracy in the fight against those who embrace terror. The citizens of emerging democracies demonstrate their courage and tenacity every time they register and vote, striking body blows against enemy forces. Fouad Ajami, writing in Foreign Affairs ("The Autumn of the Autocrats," May/June 2005), noted that the United States "has signaled its willingness to gamble on the young, the new, and the unknown. ... Now the Arabs, grasping for a new world, and the Americans, who helped usher in this unprecedented moment, together ride this storm wave of freedom."

Although the administration's counterterrorism and democracy-promotion policies each have a unique agenda and emphasis, there is also synergy between them. The convergence of these policies is necessary, and the overlap is purposeful.

Both policies aim high, and aiming high entails risk. But with the rapid evolution of the global political environment and the swift transformation of enemy forces, the United States must respond boldly. The United States and its allies must build on the great counterterrorism strengths and opportunities that democracies, in all their various forms, provide. The Bush administration's counterterrorism and democracy-promotion policies will serve as twin rudders to guide the ship of state through this storm, to free people from both terror and tyranny.

PAULA J. DOBRIANSKY is U.S. Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. HENRY A. CRUMPTON is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism.

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Gause Replies

I thank Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky and Ambassador Henry Crumpton for their reading of my article, and I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify points that I did not make sufficiently clear. In the end, however, their response does not disprove my major contentions. Rather, it highlights the pitfalls of relying on a democratization strategy to support the United States' global war against terrorism.

I did not charge that the Bush administration "prescribed democracy as the single-dose remedy to the terrorist disease." And I support its war in Afghanistan, its mobilization of a broad coalition of countries for intelligence sharing and police cooperation, and its efforts to stem terrorist financing. All are important and laudable parts of U.S. counterterrorism policy. However, to imply, as Dobriansky and Crumpton do, that the democracy element of the policy is simply one of many equally important elements is not correct. President Bush and various top officials have repeatedly stressed the centrality of democracy promotion in U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Dobriansky and Crumpton themselves end their response with the soaring metaphor of counterterrorism and democracy promotion as the "twin rudders to guide the ship of state through this storm" -- suggesting that democratization is not simply one part of the policy, but a goal of equal importance in its own right. I do not think that I exaggerated the importance of democracy promotion in the Bush administration's counterterrorism policy.

Given that centrality, what evidence do Dobriansky and Crumpton offer to refute my contention that democratization does not necessarily lead to a reduction in terrorism? None. They simply assert, without substantiation, that the lack of democracy "afford[s] our terrorist enemies an advantage." They contend that illiberalism and authoritarianism produce the safe havens in which terrorists can establish bases of operation, ignoring the fact that the Iraq war, which is now being fought in large measure to bring democracy to Iraq, has created just such bases. They also ignore the fact that many authoritarian states, most notably China, seem able to control terrorism within their own borders.

They further contend, again without offering specific evidence, that democracies can better deal with the domestic consequences of terrorism and are more likely to cooperate among themselves in international counterterrorist measures. But here they smuggle in an important qualifier to their description of democracy -- liberalism. It is undoubtedly true that the liberal democratic states of the Americas, Europe, and, increasingly, eastern Asia form a community of greater trust and cooperation, in part because of their shared liberal values. It is also true that western European democracies have in the past been able to deal effectively with domestic terrorist groups without compromising their liberal and democratic values.

Dobriansky and Crumpton do not, however, address the possibility that democratization will lead to illiberal regimes, nor do they counter the argument (discussed by John Owen in his review essay in the November/December 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs) that democratization in illiberal circumstances can increase the chances of violence and war. They do not recognize the high levels of anti-Americanism in public opinion in the Muslim world, which would necessarily be translated into more anti-American policies if such Muslims could vote on their preferences. They do not even attempt to address my argument that in the Arab world, democratization now would yield Islamist governments, which would most likely not be liberal. If liberalism is necessary for democracy to reduce terrorism and encourage international cooperation, democratization that produces illiberal regimes does not advance the cause.

To their credit, Dobriansky and Crumpton acknowledge that the administration's democratization policy "aim[s] high, and aiming high entails risk." For example, the administration's current pressure on the Syrian government, although justified by Damascus' reckless foreign policy, entails the risk that the regime of Bashar al-Assad might fall. If it is replaced by a liberal democracy, both American interests and American values might be advanced. But if it is replaced by an Islamist regime that sympathizes with the Iraqi insurgency, rejects coexistence with Israel, and seeks to spread its form of government to Lebanon and Jordan, then both American interests and American values will be set back. If Syria collapses into sectarian strife, terrorist groups will find haven there and flourish. Readers can judge for themselves whether this kind of risk is worth taking.

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