Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 5, 2005
By: Dan Drezner

IT'S NOT JUST MB....Marc raises a basic problem in talking about democracy promotion in the Middle East what hapens when the democratic process leads to a very popular anti-American regime? Egypt is just one example. Ed Morrissey links to an AP report by Steven Gutkin suggesting that Hamas is about to clean up in municipal Palestinian elections. Islamic activists cleaned up in the Saudi elections from last month.

In contrast, the devil we know often appears to be the better alternative. The arrest of a top Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan underscores how unlikely such an arrest would have been if the religious opposition was in power instead of Pervez Musharraf. Do the inevitable downsides of democracy promotion outweigh the benefits in illiberal societies?

I think the answer is still yes no[UPDATE: sorry, that was poor phrasing on my part -- I meant to say that the benefits of democracy promotion outweigh the costs], but like Kevin I'll admit that I'd like to see some other minds concentrate very hard on this problem. As I said a few years ago when Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom came out, there will always be a period of instability when there is regime change:

It's more a question of timing illiberal states that become democratic are more likely to have problems sooner rather than later, while authoritarian states that are slowly democratizing are likely to have problems later rather than sooner.

In the end, there are two factors that lead me to believe that this concern is overblown.

First, many authoritarians consciously manipulate the prominence of their radical opponents in order to appear indispensible. In the case of Pakistan, for example, one reason Musharraf's religious opponents seem so powerful is that Musharraf banned prominent secular parties from contesting elections, thereby channeling opposition to his regime towards the religious parties. The Saudi royal family could have engineered different results in their recent elections had they allowed women the right to vote. During the Cold War, strong men afraid of the rise of left parties encouraged the rise of Islamic parties as a domestic counterweight.

My point is not that parties like Hamas don't have genuine support. However, sometimes this support is hyped by the very governments they oppose.

Second, it's worth remembering that radical Islamic movements that have come to power have proven to be really, really bad at governing. The Iranian clerics are not terribly popular with the young people; the Taliban were loathed by a majority of the Afghan populace; and the only other radical Islamic regime was Sudan. This is not a stellar record of governance. The best way to tame radical Islamic movements may be to give them a hand in government and let them realize how difficult it is to make the trains run on time.

The example of Iran also offers a warning that a radical group can seize power with popular support and then maintain that power by any means necessary. However, that possibility is present regardless of whether the U.S. pushes for democracy in the region or not (it wasn't like the mullahs came to power in Iran because the Shah was democratizing in the late seventies). Better to make the good faith effort than not.

Dan Drezner 10:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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