Courtesy Reuters

Despite recent unexpected and uncomfortable outcomes in elections in the Muslim Middle East, President George W. Bush strongly reiterated his commitment to spreading democracy there in his State of the Union address (http://www.whitehouse.gov/ stateoftheunion/2006/index.html): "Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer--so we will act boldly in freedom's cause."

As I recently argued in Foreign Affairs ("Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?", September/October 2005), however, Bush's logic is flawed. There is no evidence that states ruled by dictators produce more terrorists or more terrorism than democracies. Moreover, al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators see democracy as a Western innovation leading Muslims away from government based on Islamic law. They would certainly not give up their jihad even if all Muslim countries became democratic, particularly if the democracies proved to be the kind that the United States would like to see: tolerant, pluralist, pro-American, and at peace with Israel.

In my original article, I also predicted that the administration's emphasis on elections as the measure of success for its democratization policy was likely to produce victories for Islamist political groups, the best organized and most popular political movements in most countries in the region. Election results since then have followed just such a pattern:

* Nearly two-thirds of candidates elected to the new Iraqi parliament in December 2005 won on platforms that explicitly called for a greater role for Islam in politics. Among the 215 Arab parliamentarians elected (the others being Kurds and smaller minority group representatives), 81 percent campaigned on lists that were sectarian and Islamist, while only 9 percent came from former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's explicitly secular, non-sectarian, and multiethnic Iraqi National List.

* In Egypt's parliamentary elections in November and December 2005, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats, 20 percent of the 444 elected seats despite progressively greater government interference over the three rounds of balloting. That figure understates the significance of the Brotherhood's showing. The group had fielded only about 150 candidates as part of a tacit agreement with the government that allowed Brotherhood candidates to campaign openly, and so it won almost 60 percent of the seats it contested. Liberal, leftist, and nationalist opposition parties won a paltry 11 seats, fewer than 3 percent of the total.

* And in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas--the political wing of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood--won a stunning victory against the long-dominant Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist movement founded by Yasir Arafat. Hamas carried 56 percent of the seats against Fatah's 34 percent and 7 percent for liberal, leftist, and other nationalist parties.

In the wake of such clear evidence of political strength of Islamists, many supporters of the administration's policy to encourage democracy in the Muslim Middle East called for U.S. policies to strengthen non-Islamist opposition forces. (I had made similar noises in my original article.) But the problem with this strategy, as Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has cogently argued (http://www.policyreview.org/jun04/alterman.html), is that the liberal-leftist-nationalist opposition in the Arab world is a weak reed on which to rest U.S. hopes. The results of the elections in Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority support Alterman's thesis. True, in Egypt, the government has disproportionately harassed more liberal groups, thereby allowing the Islamists to dominate opposition. But secular nationalists in Iraq faced the same challenges and opportunities as other lists, and they still did not perform well. And Palestinian civil society is probably the most robust in the Arab world, boasting numerous social and political organizations (many funded by Western governments and foundations) and an atmosphere of relative political freedom. Yet Islamists now dominate there. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the non-Islamist opposition groups in Arab countries are selling something that voters are just not buying.

The United States should indeed use its influence with Arab leaders to get them to open up more space for non-Islamist opposition groups. But Washington should not expect quick improvement in the groups' political fortunes, nor should it expect non-Islamist opposition groups to support U.S. foreign policy goals; these days, most of them are as critical of Washington as the Islamists. The United States must face the fact that, for the foreseeable future, free elections in the Arab world will empower Islamists and produce governments that are much less likely to accept U.S. foreign policy goals than the current authoritarian regimes.

So what should Washington do with its democratization policy? One option would be to scrap it altogether, recognizing that the United States' knowledge of these societies is extremely limited and its ability to shape their domestic politics is next to nil. (That would be my preference, both on practical grounds and on the general principle that we should avoid interference in others' domestic affairs.) Yet given the widespread belief that authoritarian governments produce anti-American terrorism, it is highly unlikely that any administration would adopt such a hands-off policy.

So, since the United States is destined to continue promoting more participatory politics in the Muslim Middle East, it should at least be smarter about it, focusing on liberalization rather than democratization. This would mean easing up on pressure for elections and adopting somewhat different rhetoric. Continuing to talk about "democratization" while not pushing for elections will simply open Washington up to charges of hypocrisy, while a frank acknowledgment that it favors gradual liberalization but not quick elections benefiting its enemies would at least be considered refreshingly honest.

Washington should also recognize that non-democratic institutions that are generally supportive of U.S. policy goals (such as the military in Turkey and the monarchies in Morocco, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula) can serve as very useful breaks on the power of elected parliaments, and can even moderate Islamist political groups over time.

Most important, President Bush should return to a position he took in the 2000 presidential debates. Then, he said that if the United States was an "arrogant" nation, the world would resent its leadership, but "if we are a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us." Humility about what the United States can accomplish on the democratization front, particularly in the short term, would be a welcome change.

  • F. Gregory Gause III is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont and Director of its Middle East Studies Program.
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