“Should America push political reform in the Middle East?” by Eva Bellin

Democratization and its discontents: should America push political reform in the Middle East?
Bellin, Eva,
Foreign Affairs: ISSN: 0015-7120; Volume 87; Issue 4: 1 July 2008 (Thanks Atassi)

Freedom's Unsteady March:America's Role in Building Arab Democracy. BY TAMARA COFMAN WITTES. Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 176 pp. $26.95.

Beyond the Facade: Political Reform in the Arab World EDITED BY MARINA OTTAWAY AND JULIA CHOUCAIR-VIZOSO. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2008, 295 pp. $22.95. Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush declared that the best hope for peace and security in the Middle East lay in the expansion of democracy and freedom there. The stroke of a speechwriter's pen had collapsed the divide between U.S. ideals and U.S. interests in the region. But soon enough, democratization began to collide with core U.S. interests after all. U.S. pressure for political reform proved distracting (and potentially destabilizing) to regional allies whose assistance was crucial in the drive to stabilize Iraq and restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And when democratic elections were held, they often delivered outcomes at odds with Washington's hopes and intentions. Hamas' victory in Palestinian elections, the onset of political paralysis in Lebanon, the deepening sectarian divide in Iraq–all raised significant doubts about the wisdom of a U.S. strategy built around promoting democracy.

Is it time to reconsider the democratization agenda in the Arab world? For many observers, this seems a foregone conclusion. Promoting democracy from the outside is a challenging task anywhere. Democratization is a long and uncertain process, one prone to stalls and setbacks, one that is often chaotic and sometimes violent. In the Middle East, the difficulties are even more daunting: despite the Bush administration's claims, nowhere else do U.S. ideals and U.S. interests seem so starkly counterposed.

Two excellent new books–Freedom's Unsteady March, by Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Beyond the Facade, edited by Marina Ottaway and Julia Choucair-Vizoso–help negotiate this terrain in an informed way. Although they vary significantly in their tone and enthusiasm for democracy promotion in the Arab world, their policy recommendations are surprisingly congruent. Washington must narrow its efforts to the protection of political freedoms (in the hope of building "people power" on the ground), press reluctant regimes to include Islamists in the political process, and make aid and trade conditional on performance on these more limited goals.


Freedom's Unsteady March is billed as a "realist's guidebook for democracy promotion." Wittes does not shrink from acknowledging the failures of the Bush administration in this area. But she attributes these failures to a halfhearted effort rather than the inherent unachievability or inadvisability of the objective. "Interest requires us to embrace democracy," she argues unabashedly. Historically, the United States has had three core interests in the Middle East: preserving the free flow of oil and gas, securing the movement of maritime traffic through the Suez Canal, and guaranteeing the safety of key allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. (More recently, a fourth objective has joined the fist: gaining assistance in counterterrorism efforts.) For much of the post-World War II era, these interests spelled a devil's bargain: ally with reliable autocrats and forgo pressuring them to pursue democratic reform. Consequently, even when the United States was enthusiastically embracing the "third wave" of democratization that swept southern and eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa in the late twentieth century, its endorsement of a democratic agenda in the Middle East was halfhearted and inconsistent, marred by a "deep-seated ambivalence."

This has remained true even during the Bush administration, notwithstanding its soaring rhetoric about the importance of democracy and freedom. Wittes offers a trenchant analysis of the Bush administration's policies. Democracy promotion was too "small bore," focusing on financial support and technical assistance to civil-society associations, political parties, and legislative institutions and ignoring the fact that absent true freedom (to speak, to organize) in society, these technical improvements would do little to reapportion political power or force popular accountability. In addition, many in the Bush administration were persuaded that the first priority of the United States should be the promotion of economic development and economic reform "in the hope … that democratization [would] follow as a natural consequence of economic freedom." An "economics first" approach was doomed to failure: economic irrationality was an essential part of the political survival strategy of many regimes in the region, and political interests in the economic status quo made economic reform as challenging as outright political reform.

The administration also made the mistake of focusing much of its democratizing energy on places where governance was severely challenged (Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine). The promotion of democracy in weak states (or nonstates) was bound to fail. Where government institutions cannot deliver basic security or welfare to society, people tend to fall back on kith and kin to secure these basic needs. In this primordially charged context, the introduction of democratic elections often serves to reinforce sectarian and ethnic cleavages and undermine social peace–not a promising environment for democracy's success.

To do better, Wittes argues, Washington must make a more concerted effort and develop the backbone to confront recalcitrant autocrats (even those who are U.S. allies). As a prior condition to both, however, the United States must overcome its ambivalence about the entire democratization enterprise. Americans, as Wittes sees it, must recognize that whatever the flaws in his administration's approach, Bush was right when he argued that U.S. interests and U.S. ideals are not in conflict when it comes to democracy promotion in the Arab world.

Wittes' argument rests on three legs. First, she argues, the region's long-term stability can be guaranteed only by democratization. Political crisis looms on the horizon. A growing number of Arab states are on the brink of failure, facing the triple threat of population explosion, economic stagnation, and political alienation. The three pillars of regime durability in the region–rent, repression, and (nationalist) rhetoric, "the three r's"–are less available and less effective than they once were. The end of the Cold War has shrunk the number of sources of foreign aid, and oil prices, no matter how high, cannot keep pace with population growth. In addition, the rise of new technology (the Internet, cell phones, satellite TV) has made regime behavior far more visible to the public, both domestically and internationally, raising the costs of repression. And the old nationalist rhetoric, which used to buy autocratic regimes some legitimacy, fails to resonate with a younger generation born after the end of formal colonialism and the nationalist struggles for independence. The mismatch between the challenges and the coping strategies means "the political status quo is beginning to crumble." Political change is inevitable, and the United States has an interest, Wittes argues, in "put[ting its] thumb firmly on the scale on the side of Arab democracy" to make sure that change is "managed toward a progressive end."

Second, democratization is the only way to prevent the empowerment of radical Islamists. Authoritarianism gives Islamist movements an advantage, because when political freedom and organization are constrained, the mosque becomes one of the few viable arenas for collective activism. Opening up the political system and expanding political freedoms would "level the playing field" in the Arab world and increase "the ability of Arab societies to debate, test, and, it is hoped, reject the claims of the radical Islamist movement."

Third, Wittes disputes the notion that democracy promotion will compromise the United States' ability to secure cooperation from allies, since cooperation is "forged on mutual interest." Working together on such issues as counterterrorism, advancing the peace process, and containing instability in Iraq and in Gaza is as much in the strategic interests of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia as it is in the interest of the United States. Washington can push its autocratic allies harder on the issue of political reform without worrying that this will cause them to abandon the United States in its pursuit of other goals.


All of this adds up to an impassioned, well-reasoned, and highly readable case for U.S. democracy promotion in the Arab world. Wittes has mustered some of the strongest evidence possible for this stand. Still, the argument does not quite square ideals and interests–and it falls short as a result.

The case for squaring democracy promotion with strategic interests turns on the proximity of regime breakdown in the Arab world and the utility of democratic reform for guiding the region into safer terrain. Wittes is unpersuasive on these points. First, she overstates the threat of regime breakdown. She is quite right to emphasize the challenges posed by economic stagnation and population growth. Deep pockets of popular grievance have developed in the Arab world, and they ought not to be discounted. But the conclusion that mounting discontent spells regime breakdown seems profoundly apolitical. As students of revolution know well, popular grievance is a near constant in human history, whereas successful regime overthrow is rare. The latter requires an effective capacity for collective action on the part of the aggrieved and political opportunity (particularly in the form of a dysfunctional coercive apparatus) on the part of the state, neither of which exists in most Arab countries. Arab regimes have been quite successful in thwarting collective organization through repression, co-optation, and fragmentation. And the coercive apparatus remains largely intact in most places in the Middle East. So why believe regime breakdown is inevitable? Analysts have been warning about the "yawning gap" between aspiration and opportunity in the region for decades–during the 1980s, many Middle Eastern countries were even more economically strapped than they are today–and yet nearly every regime in the Middle East has survived.

Wittes also overstates the challenges Arab regimes face. True, greater public scrutiny (made possible by new technology) raises the costs of repression. But are the costs of repression really so high as to outweigh the desire for survival? Does anyone doubt that when push comes to shove, these regimes will repress their enemies? Did close public scrutiny prevent the Egyptian government from imprisoning the opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour? As for rents, it is true that their availability from some sources has declined (or at least not kept pace with population growth), but those that are available are still generally sufficient to sustain the coercive apparatuses of autocratic regimes. The bottom line is that regime elites in the Arab world continue to have a deep vested interest in regime endurance, and they generally command sufficient coercive capacity to hold on to power.

The idea that democracy is the best way to manage collapsing states also seems odd. Even if states in the region were on the verge of failing, would democracy promotion be the best recourse? Wittes' own insightful observation is that failed states do not constitute propitious environments for democratic experiments. People's first priority is to secure basic safety and welfare. Embarking on democratic experiments in the context of deep social division and insecurity is a recipe for disaster.

Similarly, Wittes may be overly optimistic about how democracy promotion can advance the fight against Islamic radicalism. It is true that the exposure of the Islamist platforms and parties to open debate and political competition would be an effective way to challenge the hold of radicals. The question is whether a rapid transition to democracy is the surest route to achieve this end. Immediate democratization may actually privilege Islamists, since they are generally the only group with effective mass movements. Fear of this outcome provides the primary rationale for gradual liberalization rather than rapid democratization in the Arab world, an approach that Wittes rejects. This is why (or at least the cover story for why) the Jordanian regime has gerrymandered districts and rigged election laws to limit (but not eliminate) Islamist representation in parliament. This is why (or at least the cover story for why) Egypt has amended its party law to forbid religiously inspired parties. The logic of Wittes' argument seems a more fitting defense for limited liberalization than for immediate, full-fledged democracy promotion.

Finally, Wittes argues that the United States' strategic interests are sufficiently shared by its key allies in the region that Washington need not fear losing their cooperation. But although King Abdullah may share Washington's interest in the peace process or the Saudi royal family may share its interest in counterterrorism, this is not the same as saying that Jordan or Saudi Arabia necessarily do. These shared interests are regime-specific; should allied regimes fall, there is no guarantee that their replacements would share the same objectives. (An Islamist or a Palestinian-led regime in Jordan might, for example, be less supportive of the Israeli-Palestinian status quo.)

In short, the ideal of democracy promotion will, at times, conflict with the United States' core interests. Some inconsistency and halfheartedness is thus an inevitable part of democracy promotion. Recognition of this fact ought to recommend retreat to a more modest agenda than that suggested by the Bush administration's rhetoric. And in fact, Wittes herself evidences such pragmatic "realism" in the concrete policy recommendations she makes. Despite its impassioned defense of democracy promotion, Freedom's Unsteady March outlines policies that largely echo those put forth by the much more skeptical analysts in the Ottaway and Choucair-Vizoso volume.


After Wittes' manifesto, the sober account put forth by Ottaway, Choucair-Vizoso, and their contributors in Beyond the Facade feels like a splash of a cold water. This superb collection traces the empirical reality of political reform in the Arab world, recounting the experience of ten countries in a coherent, concise, and consistently insightful fashion. Overall, the authors find no evidence of a genuine political paradigm shift occurring in the region. They see no substantive redistribution of power, no creation of effective checks and balances at the institutional level to limit executive power, no reforms sufficient to make political leadership truly accountable to the popular will. At most, they find cosmetic reform: some liberalization, some introduction of competitive elections. But such initiatives are hobbled in ways that are preventing a tangible shift in the balance of power. Reform in the Arab world has largely given rise to "facade democracy" rather than true democracy.

What accounts for the limited progress of political reform? The problem lies, first and foremost, in the provenance of the reform initiative. For the most part, reform in the Arab world has been launched from above, by regime incumbents, urged on by outsiders "who want to promote democratization without risking destabilization." Consequently, the reform process has prioritized incumbent survival rather than genuine political opening. The inability of domestic forces to build mass organizations has prevented them from advancing a more radical political agenda. And without substantial pressure from below, regime elites are unlikely to relinquish power voluntarily.

These elites employ many different strategies to protect their position. Recognizing the potential challenge that organized social forces might pose, they use every resource imaginable–legal, financial, ideological, repressive–to disorganize society and co-opt, fragment, and control collective action of any sort. Political parties are subject to onerous constraints (if they are permitted at all); associations are obliged to obtain government licenses (often denied); subsidies are spread around to duplicate NGOS and shape their agendas; and when all else fails, troublesome activists are harassed or arrested.

Regime elites also embrace the tools of institutional engineering to undermine checks on executive power. It is not uncommon in the Arab world for the chief executive to be constitutionally empowered to dismiss parliament at will, legislate by executive decree, form governments without taking into account parliamentary results, appoint and dismiss members of the judiciary, and bypass the judiciary altogether through the creation of executive-controlled "security courts."

Finally, should elites find that even their limited reforms are too threatening, they can simply reverse course. In Egypt, the unprecedentedly strong showing by the opposition in the parliamentary elections of 2005 so frightened the regime that it postponed the next scheduled elections for two years and then forced through a set of constitutional amendments that aimed to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from future political activity altogether. In Jordan, when the initiation of free, fair, and competitive elections resulted in significant Islamist victories in 1993, the regime simply rewrote the election law, adopting a new system more likely to favor tribal (as opposed to Islamist) success.

This analysis of reversals and constraints is not meant to imply that there has been no progress in the region. The political situation in the Arab world today, at least in some countries, is quite different from what it was 20 years ago. In Kuwait, women now enjoy the right to vote and run for office; a competitive, pluralistic political scene prevails; and the opposition is sufficiently emboldened that it was able to push through the restructuring of the electoral system. In Morocco, the human rights situation has improved, a more progressive personal-status law has been enacted, and an opposition party has led the government. In Jordan, political parties are now legal, parliamentary elections have become more regular, and media freedom has increased. These are significant gains. But limited liberalization does not mean democracy. And the authors of this collection are largely pessimistic about the ability of these liberalizing initiatives to develop into democracy. None of these reforms has targeted the distribution of power in a serious way, and the constraints imposed on society and institutions forestall a true shift in political control.

Can outsiders do anything about this? In contrast to Wittes, the authors in Beyond the Facade are restrained. A number of them emphasize the limitations of U.S. economic leverage with some Arab countries awash in oil and gas (Algeria, Saudi Arabia) and with others that have limited trade and aid relations with the United States (Syria). Others emphasize the United States' conflicting objectives in the region and unlikeliness to follow through on democratization consistently. The broader concern is that foreign enthusiasm may outpace local enthusiasm–a clear recipe for failure.

Given these reservations, the volume includes four basic policy recommendations. First, foreign powers should focus on protecting political freedoms. The primary objective of this initiative should be to build "people power" on the ground. It is impossible to advance democracy without developing domestic social forces committed to this agenda and capable of mobilizing local political weight behind it. Consequently, the most important contribution an outside power can make is to foster the conditions, and especially the civil liberties, that will enable people to find their own footing, their own speech, and their own associations. Second, Islamists must be included in the political process. Outsiders must recognize that the Islamists constitute the main (and sometimes the only) mass movement in many of these countries. They are here to stay, and no project aimed at mass empowerment can legitimately exclude them. Political inclusion (albeit on certain terms) is necessary to create incentives for compromise and dialogue with more secular forces in Arab society. Third, Washington must be prepared to confront its allies on these issues and make aid, trade, and security agreements conditional on performance on these goals. And fourth, the United States must take the long view and scale down its ambitions. Democratization will not happen overnight, and overreaching will mean hypocrisy and failure.

Surprisingly, for all her differences in tone, Wittes makes many of the same recommendations. She, too, argues for freedoms first, Islamist inclusion, and building conditionality into aid and trade. She, too, cautions the United States to make sure that "external pressure never outstrips internal demand." She points to the cases of Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea as evidence that "a credible, grassroots, domestic democracy movement" has always been central to the success of U.S. interventions on behalf of democracy. And like the authors of Beyond the Facade, she argues against unilateralism in democracy promotion. The surest way to ensure commitment and follow-through on the part of Arab elites is to anchor these democratizing initiatives in international, rather than bilateral, relationships, linking them to multilateral agreements or international organizations.


The bottom line is that U.S. strategic interests do not require democracy promotion in the Arab world, at least not unambiguously and certainly not in the short run. Rapid democratization carries with it the danger of tipping deeply divided countries into sectarian civil war, fueling radicalism rather than moderation, and empowering forces that are deeply anti-American. But this is not equally true in every country; in many cases, a process of political opening, properly calibrated, would enhance stability and advance the process of moderation.

Of course, strategic interests are not the only factor informing U.S. foreign policy. Concern for human rights and basic freedoms gets a vote as well. How to reconcile all this? If nothing else, the work of these authors suggests that democratization is a messy process, that no great power can afford to pursue it with utter consistency, and that there are serious limits to the role that outsiders can play in coaxing democratization along. Since outsiders have neither the interest nor the endurance to see this protracted, nonlinear process through to its end, democratization must be the work of forces on the ground who daily make their own calculations of the costs and benefits of mobilizing collective power and challenging the status quo. The best that outsiders can do is cheer from the sidelines, pressure allied regimes to make space for these local forces, and provide material and technical assistance where possible.

Furthermore, they must do all this without the slightest hope of cashing in any political returns in the near term, certainly not within the timeframe of an election cycle. The work must be undertaken on faith. Recognizing the temporal, material, and political constraints that work against the achievement of democracy should lead to, at the very least, a deflation of ambition and rhetoric in its pursuit.

EVA BELLIN is Associate Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author of Stalled Democracy: Capital, Labor, and the Paradox of State-Sponsored Development.

Comments (31)

ausamaa said:

But can Reform and Democratization be the primary motivator of the US Policy in the Region or is the protection of the “current” US interests (US military presence and solicited or enforced support of certain regiems, KSA, Egypt, Jordan, Israel…) the main objective?

1-In the Long term, it is definitly an advantage for the whole world not only the US to achieve Reform anmd Democracy everywhere, but does this not conflict with “established” US Policy in the area for ages; support the dictaorships who tow the US line and isolate the rest, dectatorships or not.

2-Strategically speaking, and in a world where Three blocks being the US, Europe and Asia are emerging as contending powers (as opposed to the pipolar relationship which existed during the Cold War years, IS IT in the US interest to have a STABLE, DEMOCRATIC, and Economically Progressed -and thus more Indepent- MIddle East that may choose to side with someone else (on account of geography and proximity) and not necessarily with the US?

3- Besides, and as a former US Central Command General said: “Solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and all the rest of the peices will fall in place.”. Is the US willing to do this as a prelude to starting to stabilize the area? Israel, in the after math of the events of the July 2006 defeat seems to be “strategically” heading on such a course, would the US find it in its interest to actively, seriously, and forcefully support such an approach?

The answer to all I believe is NO, for who can predict where such political reform and its consequences will lead to and what conflict it may pose to US current and future interests!

The Middle East is still needed as a buffer-zone by the US and needs to remain fragmented and unstable (thus eventually “usable”)especially in the light of the growing challenges from Europe and the East in the light of the huge reserves of Oil and Cash reserves it contains to say the least.

Unfortunate as it is, the US political and starategic planners are by nature entrusted with formulating and conducting politics that serve select Interests, they simply do not work for a Charity or a Non-profit organization.

I would do the same if was I in their place, but with more consistency, prudence, civility, credibility and a higher dose of regard to and understanding of the nature and capability of the real psitions and the eventual reaction of the powers I am dealing with. Then I will at least know what I am up against and plan accordingly rather than being “surprised” and “outmanuvered” and “embarassed” at each turn I take.

June 18th, 2008, 9:23 am


norman said:

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Olmert, Assad could meet in Paris – Sarkozy aide
Wed Jun 18, 2008 4:44pm IST
PARIS (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could meet on the sidelines of a summit in Paris next month, a senior aide to President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday.

The two leaders are expected in Paris at a summit of European and Mediterranean countries on July 13 and there has been speculation that they may meet on the sidelines.

“We see now Mr Olmert is suggesting that the summit of the 13th could be an opportunity for direct contacts,” Sarkozy’s chief of staff, Claude Gueant told Europe 1 radio.

“I don’t know if that will be the case but in any case there is much at stake and it is France’s role as a peacemaker to try to ensure that it works,” he said.

Israeli political sources said this week that Olmert was offering to meet Assad in Paris.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said on Tuesday Israel and Syria would hold a new round of indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey in July after two earlier rounds of indirect talks ended successfully.

The last direct talks — between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara — stalled in 2000 in a dispute over how much of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in a 1967 war, should go back to Syria.

France’s relations with Syria, long troubled by accusations that Damascus has fuelled tensions in Lebanon, have warmed recently but there has been controversy over an invitation to Assad to the annual Bastille Day military parade on July 14.

Gueant confirmed that Assad would be in Paris for the summit but he said it was unsure whether the Syrian leader would join other summit participants at the Bastille Day parade.

“I don’t know if he’ll be there,” he said and added that Assad was “absolutely not a guest of honour, he’s a guest among 45 or 50 others.”

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June 18th, 2008, 12:55 pm


Observer said:

Western delusions. The crushing majority of the people of the region want two things and two things only: Bureaucratic freedom from the parasitic regime and their police institutions, and economic opportunity to advance their well being. The basic ingredient for this is an independent judiciary that functions fully. The rest is pure hogwash.

June 18th, 2008, 1:52 pm


ausamaa said:


Dont hold your breath about such a meeting taking place. Dont even waste time contemplating if it can take place. This is Bashar Al Assad not Anwar Al Sadat.

Empty and theatrical guestures do not work with Assad who sees this conflict in terms of geoploitics, and in trms of an existential and historic matter where thing require much deeper practical measures to express intentions and positions and not mere empty handshakes and guestures.

You do just do not start treatment of a cancer case by stopping at the drug store and picking up a packet of Panadol to demonstrate goodwill and serious intentions of curing the patient.

June 18th, 2008, 1:58 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

“She, too, cautions the United States to make sure that “external pressure never outstrips internal demand.” She points to the cases of Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea as evidence that “a credible, grassroots, domestic democracy movement” has always been central to the success of U.S. interventions on behalf of democracy.”

Well of course. But the Arab dictators know this also and that is why they will never allow “a credible, grassroots, domestic democracy movement”. This is exactly what Mubarak and Asad are doing. They crush liberals like Kilo immediately and let the opposition just be the Muslim Brotherhood so there is really no choice but them. In this way they gain the support of people like Alex who see no alternative to the regime.

But you see Alex, it is the regime itself that puts Kilo and others in jail and makes sure there is no credible alternative to it. Your support only helps the regime continue in this manner. What you are doing is not working. Time to change course.

June 18th, 2008, 2:12 pm


norman said:


I agree with you , they asked Hafez Assad that , He said the conflict is not psychological but on the basic human rights for the Palestinians and on the return of our land and when these principles are there then all options for CBM can be there too.

June 18th, 2008, 2:31 pm


Karim said:

During the parliamentary elections of 1954. In the middle stands Mustapha Sibaii, the founder and Secretary-General of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. To his left stands Subhi al-Omari, a retired Syrian officer from the rebel Arab Army of Sharif Husayn, and next to him stands Prime Minister Khalid al-Azm.


June 18th, 2008, 2:34 pm


blowback said:

She points to the cases of Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea as evidence that “a credible, grassroots, domestic democracy movement” has always been central to the success of U.S. interventions on behalf of democracy.

“U.S. interventions on behalf of democracy” – complete bullshit – Salvadore Allende was the democratically-elected president of Chile. Because he was a socialist, the U.S. overthrew him and destroyed democracy in Chile for almost twenty years.

Instead of “promoting” democracy, perhaps the U.S. should just stay out of the way of local people pushing for democracy and once democracy has been established CIA fronts for U.S, economic interests such as the NED, the IRI and the NDI should also stay away.

June 18th, 2008, 3:37 pm


Joshua said:

An example closer to home was US support for Husni Zaim’s coup in Syria in 1949. Zaim was Chief of Staff and promised the US that he would sign a peace treaty with Israel, smooth the way for the ARAMCO pipeline running through Syria to be opened, arrest communists, and work for Syrian participation in a Western defense alliance.

The Zaim Coup was the beginning of the end for Syria’s parliament and free elections. The parliament and democracy in Syria would probably not have survived the divisiveness of Syrian politics even had the US supported democracy in Syria, but with US hostility to the democratically elected governments of Syria (A result guaranteed by US support for the creation of Israel), there was even less possibility of a free parliament surviving.

The US participated in two other coup attempts in 1956 and 1957, both of which failed. All the same, they set the stage for the formation of the UAR and victory of the Arab Socialist left in Syria. By exposing American friendly politicians in Syria to the accusation of “treason,” the Syrian right was wiped out and the ship of state began to list leftward.

In many respects, US support for Israel and subsequent embargo of weapons to Syria pushed Syria into the hands of the Baath, Socialism, and Soviet Union. It doomed the merchant and landholding classes who sought to continue Syria’s alliance with the West in the face of Washington’s insistence that Syria make peace with Israel and settle over 400,000 Palestinians in the Euphrates valley.

June 18th, 2008, 4:06 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Since 1949 almost 60 years have passed. Why is Syria not more ready for democracy now that it was in 49? This is an important question to ask because if Syrians do not answer it for themselves they will still not be ready for democracy in another 60 years.

June 18th, 2008, 5:26 pm


Alex said:

I’ll repost an earlier comment to JOA here becasue this is the more relevant thread.

JustOneAmerican said:

Well, everyone seems to agree that America should “promote democracy” but what does that mean exactly? What policies should America take toward that end? I’m not sure where you live, but this question is an enduring policy debate within the US. Some think isolation and pressure will get people to change, some think engagement, trade and recognition will bring democracy. I personally think neither of those work and I think history shows both paths to be failures with few exceptions. It’s for this reason that I believe America’s capacity to promote democracy is very limited except in extraordinary cases.


Here is how I would approach political reforms in the Middle East:

1) Elect a clearly trustworthy American president who is not controllable by powerful assistants who have many other side agendas.

I was in Egypt when president Carter sponsored the Egyptian Israel peace treaty. Egyptian people loved him .. they trusted him .. they respected him … they respected his ideas… he succeeded in making Egypt sign peace with Israel.

President Reagan took over in 1980 … Egyptians were depressed … everyone (even those who could not read and write) felt that “Reagan is not like Carter” …

Reagan never visited Egypt … Sadat was killed, and that was the beginning of the end of the love affair that Egyptian people had with America during the Carter years.

Convincing enough Egyptians to support a separate peace treaty with Israel that was clearly at the expense of the Palestinians and Syrians was no easy feat … only a leader as likable and as credible as President Carter could have done it.

Same prerequisite is true in the case of trying to promote democracy.

2) Don’t focus on one country (which is not among America’s puppets) and ignore all the puppets …

I don’t know how credible the drive for democracy in Syria sounded to you in America, but in the Middle East not many people were fooled. You want to push Syria to be democratic, start with your allies … show the Syrian people that you are not using democracy as a tool to weaken or overthrow your opponents in the Middle East. Start with your allies.

Why didn’t they start with Egypt? … Syria and Iraq and Lebanon are the most difficult cases … full of many religions, sects, and ethnic backgrounds … and with issues that extend across their borders … like the Kurdish issue that complicates and affects relations between Syria, Turkey and Iraq … or like the way M14 Lebanese leaders were interfering with Syrian affairs the past few years while claiming they want democracy in Syria …

Too complex … Egypt (90%+ Sunni, “pure” Egyptians) would have been a much easier case… and it was more susceptible to American pressure thatn Syria which does not trade with, and does not receive any help from America.

3) Instead of 100% change in one country in one ear, be more modest … 25% improvement in 5 different countries in 5 years… that would be doable.

4) Promise lots of conditional carrots to the people of each country … it is nowhere as costly as the trillion dollar Iraq war. Make sure people know that you are promising huge assistance to their countries ONLY IF their authoritarian leaders accept to move forward with the modest political reforms you are suggesting … and that there is not much risk involved (Iraq like risk). If a leader does not comply with this genuinely innocent American offer, then his people will hate him.

Which brings me to the last point:

5) Do not mix Israel’s interests with your drive for democracy in the Arab world … the Neocons could not hide their real top objective … destroy the regimes that are not obedient … Iraq, Syria, Iran, Hizbollah, Hamas… Israel’s enemies.

That will automatically make you the enemy of Arabs. You simply can not fool them… if you are mostly trying to help Israel while “promoting democracy” … just forget about it.

Did any American administration satisfy all the above? … no.

June 18th, 2008, 5:36 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

My advice to the US government would be to stop trying to promote democracy in the Arab world in general and in Syria in aprticular. If the Syrians do not understand that it is in their best interest, then the US shouldn’t bother.

You seem to think that a country needs to be given carrots or to be convinced that democracy is good and that somehow it is the US responsibility to do it. This is the canard of trying to blame the US for Syrian failures. If the Syrians want democracy, they should work on it themselves. If they don’t want democracy, that is fine also.

June 18th, 2008, 5:58 pm


SimoHurtta said:

“She, too, cautions the United States to make sure that “external pressure never outstrips internal demand.” She points to the cases of Chile, the Philippines, and South Korea as evidence that “a credible, grassroots, domestic democracy movement” has always been central to the success of U.S. interventions on behalf of democracy.”

Is that a joke or a seriously said opinion? We all know how Chile lost its democracy on their 911. We all know how generalissimus Ferdinand Marcos got to power and who helped him. We all know who supported the military juntas in South Korea for decades. Park Chung Hee, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto and Augusto Pinochet were loved by US regime. All those countries Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Chile have now achieved democracy, which they could have achieved decades earlier, without US help. They have really no reason to thank USA for promoting democracy in their countries. Alone in Indonesia the CIA provided lists of intellectuals and left-wing activists caused the death of over one million.

My advice to the US government would be to stop trying to promote democracy in the Arab world in general and in Syria in aprticular. If the Syrians do not understand that it is in their best interest, then the US shouldn’t bother.

AIG USA’s regimes have never been promoting democracy, not any where. USA has always been promoting their national interests which have nothing to do with democracy in the target countries. Show AIG one single case where USA has managed to create a “democracy”. I can give you a long list of examples where USA has destroyed democracies.

If USA would really care of democracy it could start from Palestine. That would be a fast way to convince Arab countries that USA is sincere with democracy and no hidden agendas. As we see in the purposed agreement USA tries to force Iraq to accept, that after that Iraq will not be democratic nor independent – a worst kind of direct colony. Let’s hope that Iraqis show USA that they want to be at least independent if not so “democratic”.

June 18th, 2008, 7:31 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

There are two great examples: Germany and Japan. The Japanese constitution was basically written by the Americans. The Cold War changed the US priorities. Democracy was less a priority than making sure a country was not communist or under Soviet influence.

But in the end, it does not matter if the US can’t or does not want to promote democracy. It should stop with these efforts in the Arab world. They are a waste of time and money.

June 18th, 2008, 8:18 pm


ausamaa said:

Ehsani2, Alex

Gentlemen, HELP…!! Any recomended Syrian sites related to guidelines of invstments in Syria and the investment structure and environment applicable to big investors from Arab Gulf Companies? Status, rules, even government sites?

Related mainly to Banking, touristic enterprises, insurance and even mega-retail chains.

June 18th, 2008, 8:46 pm


trustquest said:

I think the conclusion from this week extensive discussions, analysis, and reading regarding reform and the promotion of change in Syria is one main thing to me. Opposition and people who really wish good things to the cradle of civilization have to keep pushing for reform and the defending human rights. Reform is not going to be presented on a plate of gold it has be gained. The second conclusion is, not to emphasize on democracy but to emphasize on the basic human rights, which most are embedded in the constitution, freedom of expression and speech, to change the current order from freedom of speech as privilege to a right. And that what guys like Killo and Frada Hourani are all about. Those people are no different even from anyone on this forum wants change not the regime but the order.

June 18th, 2008, 9:15 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

By the way Sim, how did you miss this:

Where are the street protests in Finland? Slowly but surely Israel is becoming part of the EU. How can you let this happen? Don’t the Europeans understand that Israel is a fanatic religious country?

June 18th, 2008, 9:57 pm


ausamaa said:


Thanks a million.


June 18th, 2008, 10:22 pm


JustOneAmerican said:


Sorry for a late reply – yesterday was one of those days.

Elect a clearly trustworthy American president who is not controllable by powerful assistants who have many other side agendas.

Leaving aside that “trustworthy” is often subjective, it’s impossible under the current system to keep powerful agenda-driven lobbyists out of the influence-peddling game. For better or worse, money in politics is considered “free speech” so, with certain restrictions, groups are able to spend money and lobby for their agendas legally. I don’t see this changing.

2) Don’t focus on one country (which is not among America’s puppets) and ignore all the puppets

I don’t think the US had focused one one country, but I see your point nonetheless. Of course, the US doesn’t operate in a vacuum and while we have tried to promote democracy in Egypt, it’s been scuttled by Mubarak. Someone commented here recently that he has set up the brotherhood as the only opposition in a cynical bid to keep viable alternatives out of the process. Frankly, I’m not sure what the US can really do to change that – quit giving Egypt those billions agreed to as part of the peace deal? Then there is the canal which is very important to America, but is critically important to Europe.

So while I agree the US should probably spend more time working on democracy with “allies” – at least publicly, the US doesn’t have all that much influence on such internal matters at the end of the day.

3) Instead of 100% change in one country in one ear, be more modest … 25% improvement in 5 different countries in 5 years… that would be doable.

I don’t the the US wants quick change even though the rhetoric may sometimes indicate that it does. As we have often seen, sudden change often brings instability an turmoil. Despite US anti-Syrian rhetoric, the US does not want to see Syria become another failed state and would prefer to see a gradual and stable change to democracy.

4) Promise lots of conditional carrots to the people of each country


5) Do not mix Israel’s interests with your drive for democracy in the Arab world

My personal opinion is that Israel’s interests are not as preeminent in US policy as is commonly believed. In my opinion, oil trumps Israel everytime. I also think this “drive for democracy” is a short-lived neocon fantasy. Both McCain and Obama will return to realism in US foreign policy.

Finally, IMO, the only thing the US can and really should do to promote democracy is to lend moral support where it can and try to be less hypocritical in its policies. Completely consistency is impossible for any country to achieve, much less the US, but I think the US needs to do a better job of matching its actions to its rhetorics.

June 19th, 2008, 2:54 pm


Joshua said:

Dear JustoneAmerican,
You write: “In my opinion, oil trumps Israel everytime.”

There is little evidence for this assertion. The two live in uncomfortable tension. US policy is wedded to both interests and struggles to keep the two separate. But when push comes to shove, Israeli interests often win out.

1. Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud was promised by Roosevelt that the US would not support the creation of an independent Jewish State without consulting with Saudi Arabia. President Truman scrubbed this promise. He did not consult the Saudis and even countered what they were promised by the State Department. Saudi Arabia was in no position to cut off oil to the US in response but it left a difficult legacy for the Saudis who now face al-Qaida and serious dissent within the Kingdom, which plays on the state’s acquiescence to Washington and Israel.

2. Saudi Arabia did embargo the US in 1973 when the US supported Israel over the Arabs.

Kissinger threatened to take the Eastern provinces if Saudi Arabia did not relent. Saudi Arabia gave way and dropped the embargo.

3. The US did support the selling of AWACS and the massive military build up of Saudi Arabia following the Iranian revolution even though this was initially opposed by Israel. But Israeli opposition was bought off by further emoluments, such as prepositioning of arms, advanced intelligence sharing, joint R and D on important arms systems, which gave US technology to Israel, etc. President Carter even agreed to the construction of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall as part of a package agreement with Jewish interests in order to get the AWACS vote through congress.

Israeli interests have not been sacrificed to Saudi interests. By and large, it has been the other way around, but US policy has been to try and isolate Saudi Arabia from the negative impact of supporting Israel. Hence the large military build up and defense umbrella, which has been made necessary in part by the ferocity of radical Arabism stirred up by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Had Israeli interests been sacrificed to Oil interests, as you propose, the US would not have supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and Truman would not have opposed the British by insisting that Europe’s displaced Jews be allowed to immigrate to Israel. America would have opened its doors to the 200,000 suffering displaced Jews of Europe rather than send them to Palestine. This would have made the US a better place and made the Middle East much less anti American. Surely it would have caused the US much fewer problems in procuring oil from the region and in making the distribution of oil to the global economy more stable.

Middle Eastern Jews might also not have been driven from their homes around the Muslim world and all countries would be the richer for it.

June 19th, 2008, 3:21 pm


SImoHurtta said:

AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

By the way Sim, how did you miss this:

Where are the street protests in Finland? Slowly but surely Israel is becoming part of the EU. How can you let this happen? Don’t the Europeans understand that Israel is a fanatic religious country?

AIG you (Israel) will never be part of EU, unless you demolish the religious system of yours and give Israeli Arabs and Palestinians their rights. I promise to come to Israel at once Israel is part of EU and buy land and donate it to Israeli Arabs. As you know in EU is freedom of movement and we can buy properties and land in other member states.

Welcome to EU, AIG. But I am sure AIG that your new Testament burner team doesn’t want to join when they realize what it means for the Jewish Reich. 🙂

On the other hand AIF compare EU’s trade interests with Arab countries and Iran now and especially in future with our interests towards Israel’s. Your country is in economical terms completely irrelevant for EU. Now it has some political and military “interests” for EU, but when there is peace Israel’s “political influence” will shrink near to zero. Well that is what we all (Europeans + Asians + Arabs – (Israeli Jews + US “nuts”)) want. Israel to become the Lichtenstein of Middle East.

June 19th, 2008, 4:08 pm


Alex said:

Thanks Joshua. You are totally right.

This reminds me of the story Ray Close sent you about Prince Fahd (later king Fahd) during the 1973 October war when he wrote to Ray (CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia at the time) to apologize for being forced to send a symbolic Saudi presence to the Golan Heights to appear like Saudi Arabia is helping Syria fight Israel … Fahd promised his American “friend” that his troops will not fire a shot at Israel.

It would have been great if we could ask Saud al-Faisal publicly to comment on the meaning of that story.

June 19th, 2008, 5:44 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

You can buy land in Israel now and donate it. No need to wait. You are allowed to do so according to Israeli law. Well what are you waiting for?

June 19th, 2008, 5:48 pm


SImoHurtta said:

You can buy land in Israel now and donate it. No need to wait. You are allowed to do so according to Israeli law. Well what are you waiting for?

Why AIG can’t Israeli Arabs not buy land in Israel where they want, but I as foreigner could do it. I suppose you AIG are writing propaganda.

Would Jewish National Fund sell land to me for a s stolen former Palestinian village? Stop lying AIG.

How did AIG JNF manage to get ownership of the former Palestinian Arab villages lands. Did the Israeli Arabs get the money? 🙂 🙂

June 19th, 2008, 5:59 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

You are just lying through your teeth. There is much land not controlled by the government in Israel and you can buy it and donate it to Arabs. Why don’t you do it?

June 19th, 2008, 6:02 pm


Sami D said:

Dear Joshua,

Your argument assumes that Saudi interests stand at the opposite pole from Israeli and US establishment interests. While Saudi Arabia would like to lead and champion the Arab region and causes, its main fear is Arab nationalism – a movement that would surely seek Arab power through control of oil, something the Americans would not tolerate. The same enemy of Saudi royals is the enemy of the US and Israel: Arab nationalism. Thus, Saudi Arabia is in a kind of covert alliance with US and Israel in crushing the likes of Nasser, Saddam or any hint of Arab nationalism. (Recently, over the past couple of decades, the alliance of US and SA has become more overt, especially on the Lebanon, Hezbollah issues, let alone the aggression against Iraq. In part also, the weakening Arab nationalism role has been replaced partially by Islamist currents). In the US Israel has influence, like in congress, but not control of the United States foreign policies, especially the executive branch. The Israel lobby has power because it helps advance American empire. It helps whip congress to support US empire projects like control of Iraq and the campaign against Iran. So, it is useful to US power. Nor was the Saudi purchase of AWACS aimed at threaten Israel or advance the Palestinian cause. The goal for these planes is, like other armaments the US sells to Saudi Arabia, to be parked and dusted off every once in a while, (perhaps used when the US needs to attack some neighboring Arab country) as a way to recycle petro-dollars back into US banks and provide money to US arms industries. If there’s an attack on Saudi Arabia the Americans will be called upon for protection anyway and will willingly oblige. You mentioned FDR promise to Al Saud regarding a Jewish state. The main US promise that al Saud cared about is US protection for the brutal monarchy, more important to it than Palestinian rights, for which the Saudi would in return provide oil deals and access to the US. A US opposition to Israel would indeed produce more pro-American attitude and less anti-Americanism in the Arab world. But doing so would’ve likely left the oil resource in the region in the hands of Arab nationalists, rather than sheikhs who are in part subservient to the US. Getting the Arabs to be pro-America is nice, but controlling Arab oil is nicer. The hope was to manage Arab hatred of their hegemon (and his local clients) through propaganda, but that hasn’t work that well.

June 19th, 2008, 7:40 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

I agree with most of what you wrote. Just one point of clarification. The Saudis viewed the Americans as an antidote to British colonialization. That is the orgin of the friendship.

June 19th, 2008, 8:00 pm


JustOneAmerican said:


Thanks for your response. I think you are right with regard to Truman and Israel’s creation. Documents from his library pretty clearly show that some thought Israel would create long-term problems with our relationship with Arabs, which was obviously prescient.

Since that time, however, I think the issue is more supportive of oil as a superior interest to Israel for the USA though I do admit my use of “trump everytime” is not strictly accurate. Your second and third points only show, in my view, that the US could have its cake and eat it too, knowing the Saudis could be bullied or appeased to keep the pumps flowing. With the possible exception of the 1973 war, in those cases where the policies have conflicted and the US has leaned toward Israel, America’s oil interests were never fundamentally threatened. And I think US political leaders learned from 1973 that policies which threaten supply and negatively impact the US economy will ensure they are not reelected.

That said, I don’t think the US has faced the kind of fundamental choice where it must choose one interest to the exclusion of the other. Although I can’t envision a scenario where such a dramatic either-or choice might occur in the near future, I think the US would likely leave Israel on its own and come down on the side of oil in such an eventuality.

In any event, I agree with this wholeheartedly: “The two live in uncomfortable tension. US policy is wedded to both interests and struggles to keep the two separate.”

Thanks again for taking the time and effort to respond to my comment.

June 19th, 2008, 8:16 pm


Joshua said:

Dear Sami,

I don’t think the Saudis are as bad as you make them out to be. Certainly they care about Saudi Arabia more than they do Palestine, but that does not mean that they do not empathise with their fellow Arabs distress in Palestine.

The leadership was also frightened of Nasserism and Baathism in its radical stage because it saw kings and Kingdoms as the bad guys who should be overthrown. This put the kings in an awkward position to say the least. They needed American protection and often only made theatrical gestures in the direction of Arabism. All the same, most Saudis do not like Israelis and do not like what they have done to the Palestinians or neighboring Arab states.

The Saudi rulers have a constant challenge in squaring this public hostility to the US and Israel with the Saudi needs of state.

But what does this have to do with oil interests trumping Israeli interests.

All AWACS in Saudi Arabia must be piloted by an American as insurance to Israel that they will not be used against the Jewish state. The Saudis did not like this, but they accepted it in order to get the AWACS.

June 19th, 2008, 8:18 pm


JustOneAmerican said:

All AWACS in Saudi Arabia must be piloted by an American as insurance to Israel that they will not be used against the Jewish state. The Saudis did not like this, but they accepted it in order to get the AWACS.


Do you have a citation for this? I am pretty certain that is not the case, or at least has not been the case for more than a decade.

June 19th, 2008, 8:33 pm


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