A new Middle East policy?

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Praktike stumbles on an interesting find. The deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, J. Scott Carpenter, recently announced that the U.S. would promote democratic reform in the Middle East whether or not radical Islamists would be likely to come to power as a result:

Addressing a session on “elections and their consequences” at the US-Islamic World Forum at Doha, J Scott Carpenter, the American deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, reiterated US resolve to help pro-reform forces in the region.

“At the task force meetings of this forum, many raised the question whether America is prepared to accept the consequences of democracy in the region. “The answer is yes,” he said, indicating to the possibility of Islamist forces coming to power in Arab countries through democratic elections.

“We didn’t interfere in the election results in Iraq. The person who has now been elected president is an Islamist,” Scott said in reply to a query from the audience about the US stance towards groups like Hamas and Hizb Allah.

As praktike points out, this is a far more unequivocal statement than anyone else in the administration has yet made. Usually it’s: “Sure, democracy’s cool… so long as it’s someone we like who comes to power.” So it’s an interesting shift. Nonetheless, it’s not entirely clear that Carpenter has thought this through. It’s true that the U.S. didn’t interfere, strictly speaking, with the election results in Iraq. But the CPA did structure the interim constitution precisely to prevent popular Islamist groups from dominating the new National Assembly—indeed, the supermajoritarian requirements were put in expressly to make it difficult to form a new government dominated by Islamists. And it’s worked out in exactly that way; the Shiites have been forced to compromise with Kurds, Sunnis, and even secular groups.

But Iraq is a very different situation than, for instance, letting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt come to power via the ballot—it’s not at all clear that the Brotherhood would treat, say, Egypt’s Coptic Christian majority nicely, or endorse an independent judiciary or freedom of press, both of which have been long absent under the reign of current president Husni Mubarak. And then you have, say, the branch of the Brotherhood in Syria which is likely to be even more radical—in fact, no one knows what they would do if they came to power. Again, this is something to seriously consider. It’s one thing to let the religious Shiites take over a largely U.S.-designed and constrained Iraqi government. It’s another to say, “open the floodgates and bring on the Islamists!” Because in all likelihood, the Islamists would be the ones who take power, since they’re the best-organized elements in the opposition.

Now, personally speaking, I’m of the view that it’s all worth the risks. Open the democracy floodgates and bring on the Islamists! Perhaps the radicals will be tempered by taking power and navigating the thorny roads of mundane politics, rather than morphing into a Taliban-style government. Plus, it’s far better to have some of these radical Islamist groups express frustration towards the United States through state action (say, through a boycott or through forcing us to abandon our military bases around the Middle East), then by blowing up tall buildings in New York City. That’s the whole idea behind promoting democracy, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, this is something that should be thought through carefully. Certainly many thinkers and scholars on the subject—like those at the Carnegie Foundation—have noted that years of Arab authoritarian rule have severely weakened liberal and pro-democratic forces in the Middle East. As a result, the Islamists are the only political game in town. As such, many experts think that the proper way to reform may be to take it slow, build up liberal organizations through foreign aid, NGO assistance, civil-society building, economic liberalization, etc., and then open the floodgates by pressuring Arab dictators to hold free elections. So there’s a real debate to be had, and it’s good to see officials in the State Department begin to think seriously about the various issues at stake here.


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