|With presidential elections in Egypt due next year, Obama’s apparent indifference to the fate of political reform in the country could have far-reaching consequences [GALLO/GETTY]|
“Lord, make me a champion of democracy – but not yet.”
Those words, a paraphrase of the famous quote from Saint Augustine, sum up nicely the attitude of US governments, both Democratic and Republican, where the issue of political reform in the Arab and Muslim world is concerned. That is not to suggest, however, that most Americans are ready to acknowledge such ambivalence, even to themselves. No, Americans take comfort in the rhetoric of democracy, and pride themselves on their own democratic history, seeing that legacy not merely as a reflection of their peculiar national experience, but as a model to others and a manifestation of a universal yearning among men. To Americans, democracy is synonymous with virtue.
As with most virtues, however, adherence to democratic principles is likely to be consistent only when combined with a clear sense of enlightened self-interest. For Americans, the link between democracy and self-interest is clear enough at home. But when gazing beyond the water’s edge, Americans easily lose sight of the link between their principles and national security – save in the most vague, long-range terms, captured in such phrases as “democracies are inherently moderate,” or “democracies do not lightly make war” – both of which are perhaps dubious propositions, at best.
Instead, concern for international democracy is relegated to the realm of altruism, and its proponents often dismissed, whenever countervailing national interests present themselves, as fuzzy-headed idealists incapable of firm leadership in foreign affairs, which is best left in any case to the clear-eyed proponents of realpolitik. Not all Americans subscribe to this view, of course, but the irony is that in the US, even the proponents of international democracy fail to make a compelling case for it.
The Egyptian example
Barack Obama, the US president, and The Washington Post have provided us with but the most recent example. When meeting last September with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Obama went out of his way, according to the White House account of their discussions, to advocate for civil society, open political competition and transparent elections.
With the Egyptian parliamentary vote due later this month, the picture looks rather different: the Egyptian government has again rejected election monitors, both domestic and international; it has launched a crackdown on the political opposition, arresting some 260 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, among others; it has suspended the licenses of 17 private independent television channels; and it has restricted text messaging, the organising tool of choice for street oppositionists.
With pivotal presidential elections in Egypt due next year, the US president’s apparent indifference to the fate of political reform in Egypt has potentially far-reaching consequences – but it is not merely the result of inattention. It is worth noting that the occasion of Obama’s September meeting with Mubarak was the launch of the latest ill-fated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Egyptian support for which is a major preoccupation of the White House.
The Washington Post’s reaction to the administration’s failure to maintain pressure on Mubarak is also instructive. The best they could do to justify their denunciation of Obama’s policy was to complain that Mubarak had “defied” him, and to invidiously compare the relative passivity shown toward Mubarak with the recent unpleasantness displayed toward Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, over his settlement policies. So much for ringing endorsements of democracy.
In fact, the championing of democratic reform in the Muslim world should not simply be a matter of altruism, easily set aside when seemingly more compelling national interests present themselves. Instead, it should be seen as a central element in US counter-terrorism policy.
Counter-terrorism experts in the US and the West decry the lack of a coherent “counter-narrative” to that presented by violent extremists, who win new converts to their cause in part by vilifying the allegedly perfidious role played by the US in subjugating Muslims, both directly and through support to unrepresentative and repressive regimes.
“We are losing the information war,” they lament. Most, however, fundamentally misunderstand the problem. To them, the negative perceptions of the US are the result of some colossal misunderstanding. Yes, it is often misunderstood, but the negative perception of the US is not fundamentally the result of others’ failure to see the basic goodness of its intentions: it is a result of US policies which, while they may not aim at the repression of Muslims as a matter of intent, often contribute to that effect.
The “extremist narrative” cannot be countered by showing images of smiling Muslims happy to be living in the US; it can only be effectively combated when the US genuinely addresses the core concerns of Muslims.
Justice and democracy
For this, there are two main elements: justice and democracy. To be clear, justice cannot be imposed by the US. Nor can the demands of justice for oppressed Muslims, whether in Chechnya, Palestine, Xinjiang or Kashmir, be easily addressed. Most involve complicated disputes requiring patient diplomacy. But if, as a great power, the US genuinely pressed for resolution of these disputes, and did so in a way which made justice for those victimised a clear, consistent, well-articulated and forcefully-supported element of US policy, perceptions of the US would change over time.
Secondly, and just as importantly, we must remember that terrorism is the tool of the weak. It is engaged in by people who feel themselves or those with whom they identify to be oppressed, and who see no other means of redressing their grievances. If we are to oppose resort to terrorism as illegitimate, as we must, we should also include as part of that policy provision for legitimate, political means of redress. And that means championing democracy.
The most important recent call to support of international democracy, little remembered now, was the second inaugural address of President George W. Bush, delivered in January, 2005. I remember being greatly heartened by that speech, not just because it was a ringing endorsement of American values, which it was, but because I saw it as a key element of US counter-terrorism policy, for which I was a senior responsible official at the time. Commitment and follow-through on those words were sorely lacking, but I am convinced that the policy espoused in 2005 remains firmly linked to long-term global security.
None of this is to suggest that a commitment to democracy can be pursued in a vacuum, or that its implementation will be easy. There will always be conflicting, countervailing interests which must be addressed and accommodated, and in any case US influence in the world has clear, and perhaps growing, limits. Moreover, the spread of democracy will not eliminate extremism. It will make it much more difficult, however, for those who espouse the use of violence to attract new adherents to their cause, by changing the environment in which such appeals are made.
A consistent commitment to democracy, even if sometimes inconsistently applied, is genuinely in the security interests of the US and, perhaps paradoxically, in the long-term interests of some of the US’ most important and currently undemocratic allies in the region.
Long-term US and regional security have not been well-served when the US and others have failed to support democratic outcomes which they thought might work against their perceived short-term interests: in 1992 in Algeria, in 2006 in Palestine, and, perhaps, now in Egypt.
As St. Augustine himself came to realise, change which must be implemented eventually is usually best implemented now.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was the director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.