Courtesy Reuters

Democratization and Its Discontents

Should America Push Political Reform in the Middle East?

In This Review

Freedom's Unsteady March: America's Role in Building Arab Democracy.

By Tamara Cofman Wittes
Brookings Institution Press, 2008
176 pp. $26.95

Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush declared that the best hope for peace and security in the Middle East lay in the expansion of democracy and freedom there. The stroke of a speechwriter's pen had collapsed the divide between U.S. ideals and U.S. interests in the region. But soon enough, democratization began to collide with core U.S. interests after all. U.S. pressure for political reform proved distracting (and potentially destabilizing) to regional allies whose assistance was crucial in the drive to stabilize Iraq and restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And when democratic elections were held, they often delivered outcomes at odds with Washington's hopes and intentions. Hamas' victory in Palestinian elections, the onset of political paralysis in Lebanon, the deepening sectarian divide in Iraq -- all raised significant doubts about the wisdom of a U.S. strategy built around promoting democracy.

Is it time to reconsider the democratization agenda in the Arab world? For many observers, this seems a foregone conclusion. Promoting democracy from the outside is a challenging task anywhere. Democratization is a long and uncertain process, one prone to stalls and setbacks, one that is often chaotic and sometimes violent. In the Middle East, the difficulties are even more daunting: despite the Bush administration's claims, nowhere else do U.S. ideals and U.S. interests seem so starkly counterposed.

Two excellent new books -- Freedom's Unsteady March, by Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Beyond the Façade, edited by Marina Ottaway and Julia Choucair-Vizoso -- help negotiate this terrain in an informed way. Although they vary significantly in their tone and enthusiasm for democracy promotion in the Arab world, their policy recommendations are surprisingly congruent. Washington must narrow its efforts to the protection of political freedoms (in the hope of building "people power" on the ground), press reluctant regimes to include Islamists in the political process, and make aid and trade conditional on performance on these more limited goals.


Freedom's Unsteady March is billed

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