War Stories

Arab Summer

How unstable will the Middle East’s new democracies be?

Protesters the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah 

As the Arab Spring soars, limps, sputters, and stalls—some societies inching toward a new civil order, some erupting in chaos, others’ fates still very much up in the air—the only surprise is that anyone should be surprised by what’s happening.

Revolutions tend to be messy and protracted, and the political revolutions stirring the Middle East and northern Africa have gone on now for barely four months—an eternity in cable news land but less than a finger snap in the storybook of history. No wonder, then, that the narrative threads are jutting every which way, their courses, much less outcomes, uncertain.

But while the ousting of the tyrants (those who have been ousted anyway) is still a cause for celebration, there is a deeper reason to be nervous about where this thing is heading.

There is a school of thought, especially popular among neoconservatives, that the spread of democracy makes the world more peaceful. Yet, while it’s true that mature democracies tend to be peaceful and almost never go to war with one another, emerging democracies tend to be more violent and aggressive than any other type of regime—and they are more likely to break out in civil war or revert to autocratic rule.

This is the grim conclusion of a book published in 2005 called Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, written by two political scientists, Edward Mansfield of the University of Pennsylvania and Jack Snyder of Columbia University.

Exceptions to this rule abound, of course. Mansfield and Snyder, working from an exhaustive historical database, lay out the conditions for smooth and successful democratization. These conditions include a literate population, a fairly prosperous and diverse economy, potentially democratic institutions (a functioning judiciary, free press, honest police, etc.), and a state apparatus capable of mediating and administering disputes among competing social and political groups.

By these criteria, the prospects for the Arab revolutions would seem to range from fair (Tunisia and Egypt) to poor (pretty much all the other countries), at least in the short to middle term.

This is what George W. Bush failed to grasp when he declared democracy-promotion to be the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He often stated—and, by all accounts, believed—that freedom was God’s gift to humanity. This belief implies that liberty is humanity’s default mode; that, therefore, once a tyrant is overthrown, democracy would gush forth like an uncapped volcano.

And so, in his second inaugural address, Bush hailed the various revolutions that were budding all around—the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the free elections in Iraq—as signs that “freedom is on the march.” But hailing them was all he did. He did little to help the fledgling regimes blossom (after all, the lilies of the field neither toil nor spin), and so they wilted on the vine.

By the end of his term, Bush had pretty much dropped the “freedom agenda.” His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who in 2005 told students in Cairo that henceforth the United States valued liberty over stability—and promised them “that all free nations will stand with you as you secure the blessings of your own liberty”—returned to Cairo a mere two years later to thank President Hosni Mubarak, in a public press conference, “for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest.” She added, “Obviously, the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship, one that we value greatly.”

Since the beginning of American history, especially since the end of World War II, our presidents and diplomats have grappled with the tension between our moral values and our material interests. The difference between George W. Bush and Barack Obama is that the former tried to pretend there is no tension (democracies are peaceful; peace promotes our interests; therefore, our values and our interests are as one), while Obama at least senses its tug.

After Obama’s May 19 speech at the State Department, where he discussed the Arab Spring and its implications for U.S. foreign policy, many neoconservatives trumpeted that he’d adopted Bush’s ideas in full. This is more than a bit of an overreach.

True, Obama did say, “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy,” and “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator,” and “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.”

But key to this was not some notion that our interests and our values are identical, but rather, as he put it, that “American interests are not hostile to people’s hopes” (italics added); that we can continue to pursue the “set of core interests” that we’ve pursued for decades—counterterrorism, counterproliferation, commerce, stability, and Israeli security—while, at the same time, speaking to the people’s aspirations.

And his reason for broadening U.S. policy in this way stemmed as much from practical concerns as from moral values. “The status quo is not sustainable,” Obama said. “Societies held together by force and suppression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually fall asunder.” The Arab world is changing; the stagnant states that have formed that world’s constellations for decades are crumbling; they will either be overthrown or they will survive only by reforming and thus meeting the protesters’ demands. Therefore, for us to ignore these demands and their looming place in the region’s future politics would be to deepen a “spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.”

The distinction is subtle, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that his analysis is correct. It may be true, for instance, that if Syrian President Bashir Assad keeps killing his own people, he will “continue to be challenged from within and will continue to be isolated abroad” and that, therefore, he must either “lead that transition [to democracy] or get out of the way.” But it may not be true. More monstrous tyrants have lasted for quite a long time, and not all of them have held a chunk of land as strategically placed as Syria. (Its strategic importance explains why Obama and the NATO allies haven’t treated Assad as another Qaddafi—and it explains why other countries might, in the end, sustain his regime.)

The most awkward part of Obama’s speech came when he had to justify giving a pass to the kingdom of Bahrain. It’s a “longstanding partner,” “we are committed to its security,” “we recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there,” etc. (He left unmentioned the overriding fact that Bahrain’s port hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.) But if this is all true and important, and it clearly is, then in what sense is it also true that we value the street vendor’s dignity over the dictator’s raw power? At what point does raw power triumph over a vendor’s dignity? If a vendor in Bahrain, and not Tunisia, had set himself on fire after getting slapped by a cop, would we have cared? (And, it’s worth adding, would Al Jazeera, with its ties to the Gulf monarchies, have given the incident and its aftermath so much—or any—airtime?) Obama added that, even so, he has encouraged the Bahrain government to release the protesters from prison and engage them in dialogue. His message to reluctant authoritarian leaders, he said, “is simple: If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”

But the Bahrain government seems to think that it’s safer to continue arresting protesters and to count on Saudi tanks for back-up. One lesson that royal families of various sorts might have learned from revolutions, successful and quashed, over the last 20 years is that one concession leads to another. This, too, might be a dangerous lesson, but it’s hard to see where the United States has the leverage to insist otherwise—or what sort of “full support” we would, or could, offer once the bullets start flying toward the palace.

At least Obama understands that the United States has to take actions, and not just utter words. He talked in his speech about offering the budding democracies—especially Egypt and Tunisia—debt relief, entrepreneurial funds, education exchange programs, trade and investment partnerships. This is all good, more than Bush ever did. But are these things enough (whether or not Congress funds them sufficiently), and does the full support of the United States of America mean what it used to mean? Is it what some of the emerging new parties or potential leaders even want? Obama said, “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding people to be heard, even if we disagree with them.” But what happens if we disagree with their freely elected leaders’ actions?

Obama is trying to build a foundation for, as he put it, “engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” But this is hard, especially since—as Mansfield and Snyder concluded in their book—emerging democracies are more prone to violent and destabilizing tendencies than any other kind of regime. Obama seems to know this. It’s good to have a president who understands the limits, as well as the possibilities, of power. But that doesn’t necessarily make the situation easier.