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The author discusses the centrality of democratization, as articulated by the President in his recent inaugural address, in current U. S. foreign policy. He points to important pending problems, however, that lie outside the scope of that concept. —Ed.

THe Next Four Years of Middle East Policy

by Barry Rubin

In his second inaugural speech, January 20, President George W. Bush focused to a remarkable extent on promoting democracy in the world. While not mentioning specific countries or even regions, this policy is obviously directed mainly at the Middle East. Thus, he has chosen this issue–and not the war on terrorism–as the central theme of his next four years.

Why did he do this and what does this apparent orientation mean for U.S. Middle East policy? For one thing, putting the emphasis on democracy promotion is an easy and “clean” theme. It very much fits with the American self-image of doing good in the world. In large part, too, the U.S. ability to support democracy and reform requires mainly words and small appropriations of money, being far more under direct U.S. control than such titanic tasks–so much dependent on foreign factors as well–as solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, bringing peace to Iraq, or wiping out Islamist terrorists.

What should be apparent but is hidden by the absolutely poisonous political hatreds now prevalent in the United States between “liberals” and “conservatives” is that it is also essentially a liberal policy. Historically, the conservative President John Quincy Adams was the father of American skepticism about promoting democracy abroad; the liberal President Woodrow Wilson is identified with the kind of approach Bush now advocates. Traditionally, liberals emphasized “idealistic” concepts about encouraging reform and more liberty abroad (even in the fight against Communism) while conservatives usually pushed to the fore such ideas as national interest and realpolitik.

If politics were logical, one could more easily imagine many of Bush’s ideas in the mouth of Bill Clinton when he was president; while Bush’s enemies sound more like his own father–former President George Bush–who was a typical conservative in emphasizing efforts to get along with existing governments. Instead we have the nasty but successful propaganda phrase, “neo-conservative,” adopted foolishly even by its targets. This is meant to imply that Bush’s policy is both “conservative” and Jewish, since Jews constituted many of the supporters for a previous–and completely unrelated–political philosophy by that name.

In strictly Middle Eastern terms, three important points should be made about this theme:

  • If it does assist liberal Arab reformers, Bush’s stance on this issue is a good thing. There is a debate among them on this point though many of the most consistent and courageous liberal Arabs welcome the U.S. position.
  • It arises out of an analysis of the Middle East. The official (regime and Islamist) interpretations in the Arab world and Iran, often echoed by Western “experts,” is that all the region’s problems arise from the United States and Israel. The counterview is that the main cause of the region’s shortcomings is the rule by dictatorships and anti-democratic ideologies that holds back those nations. However one views the Bush Administration or its specific policies, the latter analysis is still the correct one.
  • In its actual policies, the U.S. government will have to compromise on this theme. For example, the United States is not going to stop seeking Egyptian and Saudi help or giving these countries benefits because they are not democratic.

Finally, of course, there are four big issues that the Bush Administration must face: Iraq, the war on terror, Arab-Israeli relations, and a nuclear Iran.

To some extent, of course, these can be linked to the democratization issue. Presumably, if democracy succeeds in Iraq that country will enjoy peace and moderation. Supposedly, democracy among Palestinians will bring peace on that front. Real democracy might bring an alternative to Iran’s radical regime and undercut the motive for terrorism. These ideas are not ridiculous but they are not necessarily true either. For example, elections in Iraq could bring to power non-democratic forces, inspire disputes that engender more violence, and further inflame the revolt of a Sunni minority that sees itself permanently out of power. An elected Palestinian leader may be too weak or demagogic to change that movement’s policy. As for Iran and terrorism, the prospect of democratic reform is too distant to change much, at least for many years to come.

Support for democratization, then, may be a proper short-term theme and long-term strategy but is not a comprehensive policy. During the next four years, the Bush Administration is going to have to deal with issues and crises lying outside of its scope:

  • When will the United States begin a withdrawal from Iraq and what will it do if the newly elected government is hostile and bloody fighting continues there?
  • In what ways will U.S. efforts in battling terrorism develop given the experience since September 2001?
  • How will it judge Palestinian efforts to stop terrorism and get a ceasefire? It is easy to advocate “helping” the moderates but the United States must evaluate whether they are succeeding or have failed to bring real change.
  • What will the United States do to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons or react if it does obtain them? Whatever happens precisely, the next four years for U.S. Middle East policy are certain to be exciting and dramatic, and hopefully will be successful. End.

January 25, 2004

Republished by permission of GLORIA.


Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. Prof. Rubin’s other columns can be read online at 


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