The democration promotion debate, updated

For my money, the most interesting person in think-tank-land working on issues of neo-authoritarianism and democracy promotion is Steve Heydemann. Steve is not only a very nice guy, but also a rare denizen of Washington who doesn't spout conventional wisdom or who doesn't act like a weathervane (like those people who were for democracy in the Arab world in 2005 but then not so hot about it in 2006). He has a very good article up at FP (those guys sure are productive) in which he makes an important point in the democracy promotion debate:

If Arab regimes are learning from and adapting to events in Tunisia, is the Obama administration doing the same? What lessons does Tunisia hold for U.S. efforts to promote democratic change in the Arab world? It is early days yet in Tunisia's uncertain path from the breakdown of an authoritarian regime to real democratization. Yet it is already becoming clear that the success of Ben Ali's regime in crushing and fragmenting opposition forces has created enormous obstacles to the construction of a new political order. In so thoroughly dominating a political space, the immediate legacy of Ben Ali's regime -- and a leading threat to its democratic prospects -- is the incoherence and inexperience of his opponents and their flailing attempts to navigate between the Scylla of the old order's restoration and the Charybdis of a descent into chaos that might provoke direct military intervention. If Tunisia is an extreme instance of the weakness of opposition forces, it is hardly alone; other Arab regimes suffer from similar deficits. 

For more than two decades, the United States has worked to overcome these gaps, investing heavily in civil society capacity building and political party development. Unfortunately, as the Tunisian experience has revealed all too clearly, these investments have not paid off. What might improve the opposition's odds in other Arab states? One necessary step is a shift in the focus of democracy promotion programs. However painful it might be, it is long past time to acknowledge that efforts to build the democratic capacity of Arab societies has largely failed. Building democratic capacity cannot, on its own, create the openings that are needed for opposition movements to operate, gain experience, and establish themselves as credible alternatives to current regimes. It is time to change course and adopt a strategy aimed at containing the arbitrary power of authoritarian regimes.

To date, the United States has been reluctant to adopt such a strategy, preferring to promote reform in ways that are less likely to antagonize so-called Arab moderates. Such approaches have their value, but they are far from sufficient; we can see their consequences in the stumbling of Tunisia's opposition as it struggles to construct a democratic political order. 

There are a number of ways that a containment-oriented strategy could be implemented, but one linchpin of such a strategy should be a concerted effort by the United States to secure the removal of emergency laws and security courts that give legal cover to the arbitrary exercise of political power by Arab autocrats. Egypt has lived under emergency laws since 1981, Algeria since 1992. They have been in effect in Syria since 1962. In Jordan, powerful state security courts were established in 1991 when martial law was abolished. Democracy promotion may not be sufficient to bring about the next Tunisia, but what it can do -- by pushing harder to create space for oppositions to develop -- is ensure that if and when the next Tunisia happens, there will an experienced and credible opposition ready to step in and complete the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. That would be good news, indeed.

That last point, as I'm finding out in my current Tunisia trip, is very important. The political void left after decades of dictatorship makes the transition very difficult, particularly as people suddenly find themselves in a world of uncertainty (since there are no guidelines anymore).

Another argument at The New Yorker does make the valid point that Western promotion and protection of civil society activists contributed to create momentum, but I think it exaggerates the role of democracy development programs. Still, it ends with a good point on the whole Islamist conundrum:

When the Bush Administration invaded Iraq, it set back the cause of promoting democracy by tying its ideas to violence and occupation. Yet, in Tunisia, external investments in civil society—programs launched by the United States, European governments, and independent foundations, which were peaceful, gradual, and unrelated to war or invasion—bore fruit. It was Tunisian women (empowered by constitutional rights), labor unions, human-rights campaigners, journalists, and artists who braved gunfire to trigger Ben Ali’s overthrow. These democrats and their institutions survived Ben Ali’s police state in part because outside supporters had promoted their legitimacy and built their capacity. (Egypt has a similar, if beleaguered, anti-authoritarian coalition.)

The objections to pushing democratic reform in the Arab world are by now familiar: it may create instability; it may empower Islamist parties; it may open more space for Iranian mischief by empowering Shiite minorities; it can undermine a legitimate opposition group by making its members appear beholden to Western ideas; and it may deprive the United States and Europe of reliable partners in counterterrorism. Yet the corrosive effects of political and economic exclusion in the region cannot be sustained—among them the legions of pent-up, angry young men, Islamist and otherwise.

President Obama has been cautious about democracy promotion. The Bush Administration proceeded similarly during its chastened second term. A 2008 cable from the WikiLeaks Tunisia file unctuously describes a “warm and open” meeting between the assistant secretary of state, David Welch, and President Ben Ali, during which the dictator deployed a tried-and-true strategy, cultivating Washington’s allegiance by pledging “total” coöperation on counterterrorism, “without inhibitions.” Ben Ali also offered some free analysis: “He opined that the situation in Egypt is ‘explosive,’ ” a note-taker recorded, “adding that sooner or later the Muslim Brotherhood would take over” in Cairo. “He added that Yemen and Saudi Arabia are also facing real problems. Overall, the region is ‘explosive.’ ” Psychologists might call this projection, but Ben Ali had the trend lines right.

The Obama Administration’s policies are likely to have only indirect influence in Tunis. Nonetheless, the White House has a choice: to support Tunisia’s transition toward inclusive democracy or to keep a distance, so as to avoid alienating the Egyptian and Saudi regimes, and to thwart Islamists who might now seek to enter Tunisian politics. The practical rewards for promoting democracy in Arab societies may be uncertain and slow, if they come at all. There are significant risks, particularly if Egypt’s government were to fall to leaders who would abandon any alliance with Washington. But it is the right strategy—in principle and in pursuit of America’s national interests. Tunisians showed that the status quo in Arab politics is not stable. Sometimes, common sense is ample guidance in foreign policy: the United States must invest in populations, not in dictators. At hinge moments in domestic politics, President Obama has shown why words matter. Now is the time to add his measured voice to the fury of El Général’s.