Symposium | After Iraq: A Symposium

Pursue a New Freedom Agenda

By Larry Diamond

Tagged DemocratizationForeign PolicyIslam

The fundamental challenge that will confront the United States after a troop drawdown in Iraq will be the same one that prompted many to clamor for the invasion in the first place: defusing the threat of radical Islamist terrorism and the unjust, undemocratic governance in the region that feeds it. The Arab and Islamic worlds–with their great heritage of civilizations–are falling further behind the rest of the world, a fact increasingly apparent in an era of globalization. Genuine development that lifts these countries fully into prosperity, dignity, and the modern world will require far-reaching reform of governance, restraint of power, rule of law, and inclusive political participation. If the result will not always be democracy as we know it in the West, it will need to approach it and amount to something more than the cynical, tactical game of liberalization that Arab states like Egypt and Jordan have been cycling through for two generations.

Promoting serious governance reform, and ultimately democracy, after
the debacle in Iraq will be exceedingly difficult. A tragic irony of
the Bush democratization doctrine is that the climate for Arab civil
society groups campaigning for democratic reforms, and for
international efforts assisting them, is now even more unfavorable
after the American intervention in Iraq. Long-serving autocrats like
Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen have been able
to say to their societies: “You want democracy? Look at Iraq. You want
that chaos?” Wedged precariously between deepening chaos in the
Palestinian territories and civil war in Iraq, Jordan has clamped a
firm lid on political liberalization. Moreover, as some regimes in the
region did open up and elections got fairer, Islamists made deep
electoral gains, winning control of government in the Palestinian
territories, a majority of parliamentary seats in Iraq in 2005 and in
Bahrain in 2006, and winning an unprecedented number of seats in the
first round of Egypt’s late 2005 parliamentary elections, before
Mubarak cracked down. In the short run, Islamists will make stunning
electoral gains throughout the Arab world if there are meaningful,
free, and fair elections, though some of these winning candidates will
be more moderate–and more logical interlocutors for the United
States–than others.

This is as painful a dilemma internationally as any the United
States faces in the coming decade. If we press real democratization, we
face the prospect of Islamist victories. If we retreat from our
commitment to freedom and embrace Arab dictators in the “Global War on
Terrorism,” we will be bitterly condemned for hypocrisy and betrayal
and feed the terrorism that we are fighting. America after Iraq must
figure out how to regenerate the quest for more democratic governance
in the Arab world without creating new debacles. We need, in short, a
new freedom agenda.

Of course, it’s simplistic to say that all Islamist parties and
movements are the same and that they inevitably threaten the United
States (and our ally, Israel). A number of Islamist political parties,
movements, and leaders in the Arab world have been evolving toward
greater pragmatism and acceptance of nonviolence, pluralism, and
constitutionalism. For the first time, it is possible to envision Arab
Muslim democratic parties, built on something like the model of the
Christian Democratic parties of Europe, inspired by religious faith and
values but not seeking to impose religious law or doctrine on their
society. In the Middle East, the ruling Justice and Development Party
(AKP) in Turkey has been the harbinger of this transformation.

The challenge now, politically and intellectually, is to test the
more moderate Islamist political formations and to press them–as
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholars Amr Hamzawy, Marina
Ottaway, and Nathan Brown have urged–to clarify where they stand on
ambiguous issues like the weight and imperative of sharia
(Islamic law), peace with Israel, tolerance for non-Islamist policies
and parties, and the rights of women and religious minorities. This can
only be done through serious and sustained dialogue: between Islamists
and the state, Islamists and other nonstate political groups,
and–yes–Islamists and the United States. In that dialogue, Islamists
must, in the words of Hamzawy, Ottaway, and Brown, accept “the civil
nature of the political system,” that it “will work through rather than
around constitutional and democratic procedures.” Islamists must
separate their political parties from religious authorities and more
fully commit to pluralistic principles of tolerance for dissent
(including within their own parties) and equal rights for women and
Christians. In return, the West must make clear that it will
acknowledge the legitimacy of governments led by Islamist parties if
those parties respect democratic procedures, social and political
pluralism, regional peace, and the rule of law. If they do not commit
to democratic rules, then they should not expect Western support for
their inclusion or a benign Western attitude toward their rule.

We also must rethink the possible parameters of political
transition. Opening up power does not necessarily require giving up all
power. Creative strategies of transition are needed. In Turkey, the
military and the constitutional court have retained power to restrain
what the Islamists can do to reverse the country’s historic secularism.
In Thailand, the monarchy has had significant informal power as a check
on elected governments. Both of these checks diminish democracy–and at
times have been utilized to topple democracy–but this type of
constraint can be a useful crutch, enabling politically crippled Arab
establishments to hobble out of the current stalemate. Initially, this
would be less than full democracy, but it could build up the mutual
trust and restraint that would enable democracy eventually to take hold
in the Arab world.

With the proper constitutional constraints and institutional (and
international) incentives, moderate Islamists in power could be
compelled to honor and extend their moderation as they face the vexing
practical problems of governance, coalition formation, and economic
development. The institutional incentive for doing so would be the
ability to sustain a government and have it govern effectively. The
international incentive would be to obtain the expanded foreign
investment, trade, and (in some cases) aid necessary for raising
incomes and reducing unemployment. And once their current cozy
cooptation into the authoritarian power game is history, secular
parties and social forces can also be expected to find the tools,
platforms, and candidates to compete more effectively with the

To make this happen, the United States needs a multi-dimensional
strategy for diminishing the risks and creating a more favorable
regional context for reform. First, we need to move toward resolving
ongoing violence and threats to regional peace, particularly in Iraq
and in the Palestinian territories. Second, we must keep and intensify
the focus on longer-term efforts to promote economic reform, the growth
and opening of markets, and a more pluralistic, autonomous civil
society in the Arab world. Here the work of the National Endowment for
Democracy and its core institutes is crucial. Because these are
nongovernmental organizations, they do not carry the same suspicion and
the same constraints that U.S. governmental efforts often do. It would
help if we could get our European allies as well to intensify their
efforts to support political pluralism, civil society, and open markets
in the Arab world.

Third, we need to use economic incentives to get the region to
embark on serious, lasting reforms. It is vital that these regimes
generate foundations for vigorous economic growth by opening markets
and facilitating and empowering their private sectors. This requires
far-reaching economic reforms that reduce state control and generate a
more vigorous private sector. Economic reforms will be conducive to
political reforms, but they can only proceed so far without political
reforms, which need their own incentives. Economic (and even military)
assistance and trade concessions should therefore be tied to political
reforms. In some cases, such as besieged Jordan, real pressure may have
to wait until we get past the current strategic crisis stemming from
Iraq, but we at least need to signal that we are moving in this
direction for the long run. In the meantime, we must stand more firmly
with the victims of state repression. There is no legitimate security
justification for the Egyptian state detaining former opposition
presidential candidate Ayman Nour and many other nonviolent activists.
The Mubarak regime has to know that American military as well as
economic assistance will be reduced to the extent that it continues to
repress peaceful challenges.

Finally, fostering democratic change in the region is a challenge
for more than just the Arab world. One of the biggest threats to peace
and stability in Iraq is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Fortunately, it
is a regime whose incompetence, intransigence, corruption, and failed
ideology are steadily eroding its remaining legitimacy. But the Islamic
Republic will only be changed or toppled by the actions of the Iranian
people; the more we try to sabotage or subvert it with high-profile
assistance programs or poorly concealed covert action, the more we give
the regime a lifeline to rally nationalist support and demonize
democratic forces. A better strategy would be to offer broad
reconciliation–lifting economic sanctions, beginning negotiations for
entry into the World Trade Organization, and restoring diplomatic
relations–in exchange for more responsible regime behavior on nuclear
enrichment, Iraq, terrorism, and domestic human rights. An American
embassy in Tehran and a growing array of exchange programs with Iranian
society would offer much better conditions for the United States to
encourage and support the ongoing struggle of the Iranian people for
freedom and democracy.

Throughout the Middle East, there is a growing recognition that
authoritarianism has failed and that freedom is a necessary ultimate
condition for peace and progress. Political freedom will not be
achieved quickly–and certainly not by American imposition. But as we
disengage from Iraq, we must find ways–less pretentious, unilateral,
and impulsive–to renew the freedom agenda if we are going to serve our
long-term security interests in the region.

From the Symposium

After Iraq: A Symposium

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Larry Diamond is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy. At Stanford University, he is professor by courtesy of political science and sociology, and he coordinates the democracy program of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

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