A new study by a federally-funded peace organization urges the United States to step up pressure on its Middle East allies to move their societies toward meaningful democracy. The U.S Institute of Peace argues that democracy-building would benefit U.S. security interests while strengthening those nations' standing with their people.
The peace institute's report says that the United States has often put its security interests ahead of its desire to see democracy spread throughout the Middle East.
The report's author, Daniel Brumberg, acting director of the institute's Muslim World Initiative, says supporting democracy is actually crucial to U.S. security.
"The problem in the Middle East and in the Arab world in particular is that regimes that cooperate closely with the U.S. are also regimes that are seen increasingly by their own populace as either illegitimate or repressive or disconnected from the societies they claim to represent," says Brumberg. "We think that, in the long run, more legitimacy is good for that cooperation rather than less, and that more representation and more good governance and more democracy will give regimes the legitimacy they need to pursue a strategic relationship with the U.S."
Leaving things as they are in the Arab world, the Institute for Peace study says, will result in cosmetic changes only, allowing autocratic rulers to fend off real democratic change.
The study suggests that the Obama administration work with Middle Eastern allies to repeal laws that restrict citizen freedoms, hinder political activities or suppress freedom of expression and assembly.
Brumberg argues that continuing to ignore abuses harms U.S. interests in the region. "This process is best exemplified by the case of Yemen - a regime whose leaders have been in power for 31 years - that has alienated sectors of the society itself. And as a consequence of its own autocracy, the battle against terrorism and the efforts to confront the local affiliates of al Qaeda have been undermined by a regime that is seen as remote and repressive," he says. "Our security needs would be greatly enhanced by a clear alternative to the kind of autocracy we have in Yemen and other parts of the Arab world."
The Institute for Peace study argues that by keeping a tight rein on their people while supporting U.S. security interests in their regions, nations such as Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan fan anti-American sentiments.
Brumberg says this paints the United States into a corner. "These regimes then turn to the U.S. and say, 'Well, the only alternative to us is the Islamists, so you must support us.' But that kind of dynamic in which the choice is just between regimes and [their] oppositions is a consequence of policies that have to be changed. And so we need to speak up more forcefully about these politics."
Brumberg argues that U.S. support for democracy in the Middle East will advance President Obama's vision of an improved relationship between the United States and Muslim-majority states. He says the promotion of democracy should go hand in hand with efforts to end regional conflicts - in particular, between the Arab world and Israel.
But Brumberg urges the Obama administration not to allow Arab regimes to use disputes with Israel as an excuse for evading their own political reforms.
Larry Diamond co-chaired the peace institute's study. He directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Diamond argues that the United States must use more than vague encouragement if it wants to see real democracy in the Middle East.
"I think many of these Arab leaders are deeply, hopelessly corrupt and incapable of being moved by rational persuasive arguments. It does not mean we should not make them, it does not mean that there are not younger and more reformist elements or pragmatic elements in most of these regimes that we can engage," says Diamond. "But I think this is heavily about power and that we have tools of power that we have not utilized adequately in a more strategic way."
Diamond says he is not calling for cuts in aid or reduced security cooperation. He urges the Obama administration to promote democracy more loudly and clearly.
Johns Hopkins political economist Francis Fukuyama, who also co-chaired the study, agrees. But he points out that President Obama must walk a fine line: encouraging democratic change without threatening regime change.
"The Iraq war contaminated democracy promotion, so that when you talk about democracy promotion in the region, people think invasion," says Fukuyama. "Therefore you need a new start, where the same ideas that are valid become part of the American foreign policy but somehow delinked (from) that whole invasion and occupation, so the new administration has the opportunity to do that in a way that democracy is incorporated into U.S. Middle East policy."
The U.S. Institute of Peace study notes that the United States has little choice but to cooperate with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan in diplomatic, military, and security matters. But it urges Washington to become far more aggressive in its support of democracy in the Middle East.