The Merits—and the Limits—of Democracy Promotion in the Middle East

In his new book, a veteran foreign-policy official and analyst provides a riveting 40-year history of the idea that human rights should be more than two nice-sounding words.

From the cover of Realism and Democracy by Elliott Abrams.

From the cover of Realism and Democracy by Elliott Abrams.

Dec. 13 2017
About the author

Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of several books on the Middle East, including Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.

American foreign policy has witnessed quite a few knock-down, no-holds-barred battles over the past 50 years—within each of the Democratic and Republican parties, between the two parties, and, sometimes, transcending party affiliations. What makes especially edifying anything that Elliott Abrams writes on foreign policy—in addition to his insight, intellect, and wit—is that thanks to his Democrat-turned-Republican political pedigree, he has been involved in almost all of these fierce debates since the early 1970s until, as it were, the day before yesterday.

To follow Abrams’ personal intellectual history and political maturation is thus to trace an important piece of the past half-century of intellectual and political thinking in America. And that opportunity is again on offer in his new book, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring. The book’s largest section, at 153 pages, is devoted specifically to the ups-and-downs of American democracy-promotion efforts in the Middle East. But no one should miss Abrams’ 91-page introduction.

This introduction is not your typical after-the-fact effort by an author trying to impart a semblance of methodological coherence to the often disparate chapters that will follow. Rather, the opening third of Abrams’s book is a riveting 40-year history of an idea: the idea that human rights and, later, democracy promotion should be not just the nice-sounding but throwaway advice we spoon-feed to dictators on the American dole or to the leaders of insignificant countries in irrelevant places, but at the center of American foreign policy and at or near the top of the agenda in U.S. relations with other great powers.

In illustrating his theme, Abrams gives us a ringside seat to a succession of battles royal, from, in the 1970s, Henry “Scoop” Jackson vs. Henry Kissinger over the issue of human rights vs. détente, with Soviet Jewish emigration being a key flashpoint, to, in the 80s, the policy wars over the Communist threat in Central America (Nicaragua, et al.), to, again in the 80s, the debate over the wisdom or lunacy of Ronald Reagan’s ideological insistence on labeling the USSR an “evil empire,” followed in the 90s by the debate over the wisdom or lunacy of NATO expansion and in the 2000s by the skirmish over the pursuit of democracy in the Middle East.

At every one of these disputes, serving on Capitol Hill or in the State Department or in the White House, Abrams was there, either as an intimate observer or as a key player, and his account reflects an insider’s sensitivity, nuance, and appreciation of the human motivations that drove leaders at critical moments. But what recommends this gem of an essay as required reading by graduate students for the next generation is that, despite his career as a bare-knuckled activist, Abrams’ history of human rights and democracy in modern American foreign policy is rigorously analytical and passionately dispassionate: a true tour de force.


In moving from this broader story to the story of the Middle East in the post-September 11, 2001 era, Abrams comes face to face with the dissonant paradoxes of a region that a millennium ago housed the world’s greatest scientists, mathematicians, and physicians but today produces little the world wants or needs except what can be extracted from its sands. In this region, the main political alternative to reign by authoritarian despots has not been governance by democrats but subjugation to authoritarian Islamists. The Arab and Muslim Middle East is also a region where the dwindling numbers of local Jews, elsewhere among the world’s most outspoken advocates of democracy, tend to prefer the protection of kings and potentates and to fear that “democracy,” in the shape of free elections, will empower the very radical forces that want to wipe them out.

To advocate true democracy in the Arab world—which means, Abrams stresses, not just (nominally) free elections, and emphatically not just a rhetorical appeal to respect human rights, but a sustained and determined commitment to the peaceful contestation for power—is a tough sell at the best of times. In the wake of the “Arab Spring,” a half-decade that witnessed some of the greatest human suffering in modern Middle East history, it is tougher still.

Abrams, however, is undeterred, and his case is simple: promoting democracy is not only right, it is also the smart thing to do. Indifference to democracy, he argues, in addition to jettisoning our core values as Americans, undermines our core interest in stability. By contrast, democracy “is likely to be a stronger barrier to terror and to extremist Islamist groups than repression.” Having exhausted the failed ideologies of pan-Arabism, socialism, anti-Westernism, and anti-Zionism—and fearful of the violent and revolutionary genie that could emerge if they rubbed the lamp of Islamism—Arab republics looking for legitimacy ultimately have nowhere else to turn but to the validation that only democracy can provide. (Monarchies like Morocco and Jordan, he astutely notes, are in a different category.)

True, Abrams concedes, obstacles to Middle East democracy are many and steep; but they are not insurmountable.

Yes, the Middle East has been a wasteland for democratic development; but a number of non-Arab Muslim countries have indeed evolved into functioning democracies. This suggests that the problem may be one not so much of religion (i.e., Islam) as of culture (namely, the tribalism of many Arab societies): a condition that itself seems to be evolving in a positive direction.

Yes, again, extremist Islamist groups that reject the freedoms and values at the heart of democracy enjoy a head start in the elections game and can usually win in a country’s first ballot. But with persistence, and with outside support, non-extremist groups can stay in the game and win subsequently.

Yes, finally, Arab rulers will find all sorts of ways to postpone, defer, sidetrack, or subvert any real contest for power—including by favoring extremist groups the prospect of whose ascension to power is even more terrifying to American policy makers. But American presidents should not underestimate the immense clout they wield and their ability to compel even the most recalcitrant “friendly tyrant” into tolerating a real political opening.


There is much wisdom in these observations and, especially, in the policy recommendations that flow from them. Abrams is right to underscore the need for presidential leadership in any campaign for democracy promotion, especially in relations with countries led by autocrats adept at deflecting demands that lack a White House imprimatur. He is also right to focus on the need to protect the key groups—like religious and ethnic minorities or hardy bands of democrats—that are most likely to suffer under authoritarian regimes projecting a false choice between democratic progress and internal “security.” And he is right once again to conclude, from the less than stellar record of democracy-promotion efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development, that non-governmental institutions are better suited to the nuts-and-bolts work of helping to build political parties in the inhospitable environment of most Arab states.

Still, a dose of modesty is in order. Highlighting the power of American presidents to trigger change is well and good; but presidents come and go, and worse, often shift priorities over the course of their terms in office. That was the unfortunate case, for example, with the George W. Bush administration, which reached the high-water mark of White House commitment to Middle East democracy only to let it recede in the latter part of the president’s second term when the Iraq experiment foundered.

This ebb and flow, inherent in our system of government, is just one factor that ultimately limits the influence the U.S. can exercise on politics in other countries, Arab autocracies being no exception. However much Washington may invest in political change in faraway lands, the actual outcome will always matter more to the local ruler than to us: a fact of life we disregard at our peril and, more importantly, at the peril of that ruler’s populace. This is the lesson that Bashar al-Assad, responsible for some of the worst mass atrocities of the 21st century, meted out to the hapless Obama administration.

On another front, Abrams is similarly correct to assert “the need for politics” in most Arab countries. Only through requiring and building popular support on a broad range of public-policy issues will the innate advantage of Islamists eventually erode. As important as it is for democrats to win votes, it is at least as important for Islamists to lose them, peacefully and through a consensual political system.

By definition, however, that requires Islamist participation. The practical question is where to draw the line: which Islamist groups are to be allowed into the political game, and under what conditions? Excluding parties that advocate Islamist ends through undemocratic (i.e., violent) means is or ought to be a straightforward proposition; the tougher question is what to do about parties that advocate Islamist ends but employ (allegedly) democratic means.

Here, Abrams’ poster-child for successful Islamist integration in politics is Tunisia’s Ennahda party. He writes about the cautionary phone calls he received from a variety of policy intellectuals—this was after he himself was back in private life and at the Council on Foreign Relations—warning against the Council’s intended hosting of a lunch for Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s leader. Ghannouchi, he was told, was a Muslim Brotherhood wolf in democrat’s clothing. But those fears, he concludes, were misplaced. Indeed, “[i]n the years since then we have seen that it was wrong: Ghannouchi has led his party toward offering genuine support for democracy.”

I was one of those who at the time warned against too close an embrace of Ghannouchi, whose comments on a private visit to my own institution were characterized by deception and duplicity. Despite the subsequent steps enumerated by Abrams—most importantly, the peaceful handover of political power after an electoral defeat—I retain my skepticism today. At the very least, in my view, it is far too soon to judge whether or not Ghannouchi’s support for democracy is genuine. In a decade or two, for better or for worse, we’ll be in a position to judge.


If there is one arena where I wish Abrams’ approach would become settled policy, both when it comes to ensuring high-level U.S. endorsement of democracy and when it comes to addressing the practical questions of where to draw the line on political participation, that arena is the Palestinians.

An especially bright moment in the annals of U.S. democracy-promotion in the Middle East was the stirring policy enunciated by President Bush in a Rose Garden address in June 2002. The United States, he declared, would support Palestinian claims for independence and statehood only if the Palestinians were to build a “practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty.”

Indeed. The seemingly intractable conundrum that was and is the Israel-Palestinian conflict would certainly be more amenable to resolution if there were a democratic equilibrium between the two sides. Even the 1947 UN Partition Resolution, after all, had called for two “democratic states” to emerge from Mandate Palestine. For enshrining this principle as policy, the Bush administration, in which Abrams played a critical role, deserves great credit.

Sadly, however, the story did not end well. In 2006, the administration back-pedaled on its own principles and commitments by insisting, of all things, that Hamas, the armed terrorist organization opposed to the Palestinian Authority and committed to Israel’s destruction, be allowed to compete in Palestinian legislative elections without giving up its arms or even renouncing violence as a path to achieving its political objectives. Against most predictions, Hamas emerged victorious, thus effectively dividing the Palestinians into two geographical zones, freezing the diplomatic process, ending the Palestinian democratic experiment, and consigning the people of Gaza to more than a decade of Islamist-controlled hell.

This sorry experience, more than any other, eroded American enthusiasm for Arab democracy and had a powerful impact on how Washington would react to the subsequent upheaval of the “Arab Spring.” In Realism and Democracy, Abrams doesn’t shy away from upbraiding his former boss, Condoleezza Rice, for giving Hamas a pass on renouncing violence, and even includes himself among those who erred at the time (though I strongly suspect his private counsel differed from the administration’s ultimate line). And yet, while he seems willing today to entertain more complex strictures and tactical compromises than he once was, he remains no less committed to an American foreign policy that has democracy promotion at its core—including in the tormentingly opaque Arab world.

This isn’t idealism, he insists, it is realism—because “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous” not just to Arabs but to us, too. At a time when a macabre fondness for the “stability” provided by the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, and Bashar al-Assad has seeped into sectors of America’s public discourse, one can quarrel with certain details of Abrams’ treatment plan, but his diagnosis of the problem is unquestionably right.

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