Promoting democracy in Middle East, a thing of the past in Washington

August 13, 2017

It appears the United States is getting out of the democ­racy-spreading business — at least while the current president remains in the White House. The Washing­ton Post reported that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered the US State Department to redefine its mission and issue a new statement of purpose.

The Post report stated that draft statements under review were similar to the old mission statement, except for one thing: Any mention of promoting democracy was being elimi­nated.

This reversal of recent policy could herald bad news in the Middle East, where democracy is either unavailable or attainable only in limited quantities. On the other hand, not many will regret Washington’s abandonment of democracy promotion in the region.

Democracy promotion under President George W. Bush involved an agenda that did not exclude the use of military force and did not care whether people in the region were ready for it. The Bush administration’s policy was to export democracy as if Jeffersonian democracy was a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf item.

It was an agenda that favoured the indiscriminate ascent of civil society and the atrophy of the state, even at the expense of disorder and strife. It was an agenda premised on the partici­pation of Islamists even when they were not ready to govern or play a leading role in the demo­cratic process.

The results were often increased chaos and violence.

Washington believed it could treat the Middle East as a homogenous zone and failed to understand that, despite Arab societies’ many uniting similari­ties — such as language, religion, culture and history — there are also vast differences between them.

The administration of US President Donald Trump is following a very different foreign policy than previous US adminis­trations, particularly regarding the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

Trump does not seem to place the same importance on promot­ing democracy as Bush did when he ordered the invasion of Iraq, overthrew the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and acted as though the United States could export Western democracy to Middle Eastern countries.

A newcomer to politics, Trump apparently thought he could apply his business experience to the cut-throat world of interna­tional politics. Nothing could be further from reality. The presi­dent’s behaviour is unorthodox when it comes to diplomacy, to say the least.

While campaigning, Trump lashed out at his predecessor, accusing Barack Obama of failing to act on several foreign policy issues, including the Middle East. Now Trump is starting to realise that diplomacy, geopoli­tics and business are very different animals.

Although the United States’ desire to bring democratic reforms to the region remains on its agenda, it does so today at a much less urgent pace. Indeed, some may regret Washington’s loss of immediate interest in seeing much-needed democratic reforms take place in the greater Middle East. Nevertheless, the Arab region’s abandonment by official Washington will not be regretted by others.

Without the United States’ activist posture, the Middle East might be able to realise on its own that it needs democracy and build one from within regardless of what Trump might think.