How and Why the U.S. Should Promote Democracy in the Arab World

December 16, 2016 | Elliott Abrams
About the author: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the chairman of the Tikvah Fund.

While encouraging the spread of liberal democracy was long a key component of American foreign policy, both the Republican and Democratic parties now seem reluctant to engage in that pursuit. Elliott Abrams argues that it is very much in the nation’s interest to foster gradual steps away from despotism in the Arab world, and proposes how it can be done soberly and effectively:

Islamic extremism is an idea, and while it cannot be defeated without arms, it cannot be defeated by arms alone. A better idea, democracy, is a formidable and necessary weapon. . . .

U.S. support for repressive and illegitimate regimes . . . risks further alienating Arab populations, who may see the United States as indifferent or hostile to their desires for less corrupt and repressive governance. Moreover, Arab democrats are usually pro-Western and reliable allies for the United States when they enter political office. Washington always has difficulty sustaining close relationships with repressive regimes. . . . Uncritical support for them is not a realistic policy.

American policy should [also] reflect the United States’ own political beliefs: the goal is not merely democracy in the narrow sense of winner-take-all elections. The U.S. Constitution instead establishes a system of institutional restrictions on government power that guarantees minority rights and the rule of law. . . .

Realism requires an understanding of the role of legitimacy in sustaining regimes. Even the Arab monarchies depend on legitimacy, which they derive from some partnership between the rulers and the ruled. There are many ways the United States can address legitimacy issues, ranging from strengthening the role of elected, if not very powerful, parliaments in several states to reducing corruption, reducing poverty, and relying on law rather than wasta (clout or connections) to determine citizens’ relationships with their governments. Even in countries where there are no political parties and there is little political life, the United States can still promote relations between ruler and ruled that are more just—and may open a path toward stable democracy.

Read more on Pressure Points: