Bush Hasn't Really Tried a Democratic Approach in the Middle East ... Kerry Should (If He Gets the Chance)

News Abroad

Mr. Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Human Rights Center and Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His book, From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights, is scheduled to appear next month (Rowman and Littlefield). He can be reached at neve_gordon@yahoo.com.

As democratic presidential nominee John Kerry formulates his Middle East policy, he would do well to learn from the mistakes of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Former President Bill Clinton began his tenure after the demise of the Soviet Union, and thus he was the first president to enter office following the establishment of U.S. hegemony around the globe. Accordingly, maintaining the status quo became the cornerstone of his foreign policy, which meant that U.S. interests would best be served so long as the Middle East remained stable. Recently, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk pointed out that the Clinton administration promoted the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians not for its own sake, but rather as a means to uphold stability. Thus, stability was the goal and peace became merely the instrument to achieve it.

After 9/11, Clinton's Middle East policy was radically transformed. Instead of stability, the Bush administration wanted change. The existing American hegemony was deemed insufficient by Bush's advisors, who sought to expand and strengthen U.S. control over the region's oil and natural gas resources. Bush accordingly decided to change the configuration of a few Middle Eastern countries so as to advance these objectives, camouflaging his actions with noble terms like "democratization" and "freedom."

If for Clinton the peace process became an instrument to promote stability, Bush has employed war as a means to bring about change. Whereas Clinton was content with the hierarchical power relations created following the end of the Cold War, Bush set out on a crusade to extend U.S. control. The wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most evident manifestations of this policy transformation.

Despite apparent differences distinguishing the two administrations, Clinton's and Bush's Middle East policies share a few common denominators, which are ultimately inimical to vital long-term U.S. interests. Rhetoric aside, the two administrations have mistakenly conceived authentic democratization of the Middle East as a threat to U.S. hegemony, both in the domestic and international spheres.

This, more or less, is why both administrations have opposed grassroots democracy. A democratic Saudi Arabia, for example, might ask the U.S. to dismantle all American military bases operating on its soil, or may even curtail the business of U.S. oil corporations stationed in the country. Such actions would, according to the prevailing logic, endanger U.S. control over the world's resources and therefore should not be tolerated. The solution, therefore, has been to support authoritarian regimes, simply because they appear to be more predictable and easier to handle.

Along the same lines, both administrations have been against the democratization of the international realm, excluding such bodies as the United Nations and the European Union from playing a meaningful role in the Middle East. Again, the rationale is that the international democratization of power would threaten U.S. hegemony.

The anti-democratic strain informing U.S. foreign policy is, however, shortsighted for it does not take into account what Cornell University political scientist Susan Buck-Morss has called the "dialectic of power." In her book, Thinking Past Terror, Buck-Morss shows how power actually produces its own vulnerability. The ongoing occupation and control of Middle East countries, alongside U.S.'s unflinching support for brutal military dictators, oppressive feudal kings, and the occupation of Palestine, will eventually engender violent forces that will end-up attacking the U.S. Think of Osama bin Laden, who was initially trained by the U.S. to attack Soviet troops. Isn't he a clear manifestation of the idea that power creates its own vulnerability?

The U.S.'s long-term goal should not be to violently control the Middle East, but to help it go through a process of democratization, which will ultimately lead to the promulgation of egalitarian values, human rights, and freedom.

Democracy, though, must come from below and not from above, if only because at the root of all definitions of democracy lies the idea of popular power, a situation in which power, and perhaps authority too, rests with the people. So if, for example, the Turkish citizenry oppose taking part in the war against Iraq, it is a critical mistake to bribe and pressure their government until it acts against its own constituency's will. In due course this constituency will wind up directing its anger against the U.S.

Finally, the democratization of power in the international sphere may seem at first to limit the U.S., but from a long-term perspective this is surely not the case. Consider President Bush's unsuccessful attempt to enlist countries to help the U.S. find a way out of the Iraqi debacle. One can now appreciate the shortcomings of his soloist approach.

Thus, to make a meaningful difference in the Middle East, John Kerry would have to reduce the gap between words and deeds, and actually pursue democracy. Such a policy might limit U.S. hegemony in the short term, but in the long run will make the world a better and safer place and in this way strengthen the U.S. itself.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Two major caveats to this otherwise generally sound essay:

1) Democracy alone could make matters worse in some instances. It needs to be anchored within a rule of law, protections for human rights, a decent system of secular public education, and international cooperation, in order that its downside risks be contained.

2) Democracy becomes a code word for hypocrisy (think of the “Democratic Republics” in the Soviet bloc) unless it is applied consistently and systematically, and not just used as a sound-bite.

Two cases in point:

a) This article should be read in connection with the one above by Wittner re nuclear weapons. What, for example, do we do if a democratic Saudi Arabia democratically decides it wants to build nuclear weapons (as undemocratic Pakistan has, tyrannical N. Korea is, and semi-democratic Iran may be) ? See point 1) above.

b) Despite its long history, democracy for a small select minority only, or democracy for a majority that leaves out large minorities, is no longer a viable approach. That means, among other instances, that Palestinians on the West Bank have the same claim on democracy as do Israelis, e.g. the right to vote for leaders in a sovereign state of their own. A people's right to democratic self determination is not diminished because some of their leaders are war criminals or support terrorists. Grabbing Palestinian land with an illegal Berlin wall type barrier in order to appease fanatical “settlers” (a foolishness which both US presidential candidates are too cowardly to condemn, incidentally) is not the best way to a peaceful two-state solution there, which is the only outcome worth trying to achieve. Democracy is no guarantee against doing stupid things like putting up a border fence deep within someone else’s country instead of on the border where it belongs.

Final remark: A president of the USA, any president, is not the first place to look for consistent and viable leadership on this issue, for the simple unfortunate reason that America is a democracy, most Americans don't really care much about democracy in other countries (if they even know what and where those are countries are), and American leaders reflect the limitations and foibles of the people that elect them or who vote prior to a selection of them. I say this as a proud patriotic American who is also a realist.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The case of the Israeli land-grab wall is perhaps a minor one within the larger issue of global democracy, stability and human rights, but it is indicative of a fatal flaw often found in well-meaning American attempts to make the world a better place: hypocrisy.

It is flat out hypocritical for America to make its most ironclad foreign policy position the unswavering defense of the right of the Israeli state to exist (even to the point of pretending that Israel has not had nukes for decades though none of its neighbors do), while simultaneously clinging to the ridiculous Likud Party idea that 100% cessation of all terrorism must be a precondition for Palestinian statehood - a condition no country has ever met, certainly not Israel itself. Terrorism is a fact of life. That does not mean we should not devote considerable resources to fighting it, but we cannot subordinate everything else to that fight, even if that is all that a few crazy geezers in Jerusalem can ever come up with as a program.

I saw the Berlin Wall when it was up, and pictures of the Israeli fence remind me of it. I also think there is at least some resemblance between a wall that stopped Germans from travelling from one part of their country to another and a wall that (even if this is not its only purpose) prevents Palestinians from doing the same. Nor can any state function without a modicum of infrastructure and it is very well documented how IDF bulldozers and tanks, over the past 3 years, destroyed civilian infrastructure on massive scale on the West Bank, that practically the whole world could see had little or nothing to do with curtailing Hamas and Al Aqsa (long before Sharon adopted his opponents' idea for a wall, but changed the route, in a dubious effort to appease the religious fanatic "settlers" - by allowing those nut-cases to stay on their stolen land rather than have to leave it to return to the proper side of the wall, were the wall where it should be).

This is not a page about the Mideast, so I will say no more about it here, but U.S. attempts to promote democracy in Moslem countries (where it is sorely needed) will continue to falter as long as American foreign policy remains in the failed and ignorant straitjacket of:
Interests of Israeli settlers = interests of Israelis = interests of Americans.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I will leave aside the question of Palestinian democracy and statehood, except to echo the sentiment that it is refreshing to at least have people able to think intelligently and objectively on that subject (for a change).

1. RE: Letting Saudi Arabia have their nukes if they are democratic about it.

I think the world addressed this basic question 40-50 years ago and the basic formula arrived at then was encapsulated into the non-proliferation treaties. If we update and put some teeth into those agreements, then we stand a reasonable chance of being able to stop both democratic and non-democractic governments from nuclearism. If there is no threat to the Saudis what the heck do they need nukes for ? And, if the Saudis and other countries in the region all renounce nuclear weapons, then Israel should absolutely be pressured into doing the same. The Israelis would want some pretty solid assurances; some democracies do not last, and some can even be warlike while they are still lasting. Indeed most democracies run into problems sooner or later, as America’s founding fathers and Churchill noted. Not to mention the obvious problem of lying and cheating re the possession of nuclear weaponry.

It is, of course, hypocritical for the US to still have nukes while other countries agree not to have them, but that was the basic global deal struck decades ago. Stop at the existing level of proliferation, in the basic interest of all humanity.

Here, in distinction to the last 100 or so times I have mentioned his name, I actually think Dubya has a sort of legitimate point: better to accept some inconsistency between big guys like the US, and small fry elsewhere, and focus at least initially on the more urgent task of keeping the nasty weapons away from the real crazies.
Unfortunately this necessarily multilateral project has been made vastly harder by the squandered opportunities and international ill-will created by that same non-humble, non-non-nation-builder, non-non-flip-flopper and non-leader.

2. RE: "Neoconservatives problem is that they want a regime strong enough to stand up to Al Qaeda, but not strong enough to stand up to Halliburton" [Todd #4183)].

Well sure, but there is a much bigger problem even than that. The so-called neo-cons are not only hypocritical liars, they are ignorant liars as well, to the extent that some of them actually believed that Mideast regimes would fall like dominos under Pax Halliburtonia, if only we cakewalked into Baghdad.

The bigger "problem" with a doctrine of unilateral preventative regime change on the cheap, and directed by chickenhawks, is that Halliburton does not have thousands of recruits and potential recruits willing to both commit mass murder and to die for it, or even to mass peacefully outside a mosque for it. It would be bad enough if Rumsfeld & Co. were merely hypocritical war criminals whose goals of peaceful American corporate hegemony were however being achieved, but in reality their reckless gamble in Iraq was quite likely to fail under nearly any realistic scenario. Unfortunately, we the people will pay the price, for years to come, for the long string of blunders committed in Washington over the last 3 years, even if our wavering democracy here in the U.S,. successfully punishes those who have grossly abused their positions of public trust for selfish personal political or so-called ideological gain.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Rereading Todd's comment above, I see that in a more terse phrasing, he essentially already made my (last) point (immediately above) about unworkable "neoconservativism".
It is a point worth repeating, however.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/15/2004

You are quite right. I have always sympathized with the Palestinians, particularly those who have to undergo hardships and humiliations by passing through checkpoints, or those who lost a loved one in an Israeli attack, or those who simply face the wrath of an undisciplined Israeli soldier filled with rage. Their real enemy however comes from within, and I believe that while not wanting to appear divided, most Palestinians are fully aware of this.

Surely, Israel has made many mistakes, but the largest mistake in my opinion comes from the international community which would rather put upon Israel total blame for virtually every incident that happens than intervene to promote serious democratic reform of the PA.

In any event, I suppose time will tell what happens next (although getting out of Gaza is a great start).

Ben H. Severance - 9/15/2004


I was in a "turn the other cheek" mode when I wrote the comments regarding Israel. Of course, I don't expect the Israelis to passively tolerate a school bus explosion. Despite my efforts to be objective and impartial, I often nod in approval when Israeli jets blast a Hamas location. Pinpoint counter-terrorism like that is wholly justifiable (and gratifying), but rolling tanks in and occupying entire towns of Palestinians is counter-productive. It certainly helps secure Israel, but it doesn't resolve the conflict.

As for terror tactics themselves, you are quite right to point out the many alternatives: civil disobedience ala Martin L. King and Gandhi, or guerrilla warfare ala the American Revolution, though I would argue that guerrilla warfare invariably produces its own share of atrocities (the Patriot militia persecuted Tory families). I can understand acts of terror on a visceral level, probably because I know I could mete out a brutal vigilante reprisal on anyone who harmed my wife and two daughters.

Israel is an admirable nation in many respects, and its military prowess is quite remarkable. And as I've said elsewhere, America supports Israel because it is westernized, democratized, and capitalized, and has a more palatable religion than Islam. Nonetheless, because Israel was arbitrarily created in the 1940s, an act that displaced thousands of native inhabitants, anger and violence are a natural consequence. I generally prefer Israel (for irrational cultural reasons if nothing else), but I know I must try and see the situation from the perspective of Palestine, as well. I am not convinced that the Bush Adminstration is trying to do the same.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/14/2004

I thank you for your thoughtful post. I must say that it is always a pleasure having these discussions with you and Peter, and others who are capable of disagreeing in an intelligent and civil manor.

On to your post, I agree with “Caveat One” totally. Democracy cannot simply mean the consent of the governed (that is, the majority) but must also include a rule of law, a free press, and some means of deposing an unpopular government from power. Beyond that, I believe each country and culture can successfully adopt a democratic system within the parameters of their own peculiarities.

Caveat Two is also a point well taken.

Here is where we part ways:
1) “If a truly democratic Saudi Arabia sought a nuclear arsenal, then the U.S. must let it come to pass.”

Your point about hypocrisy is well taken, which is why I believe the US should hold true to its word by abiding by treaties and discontinuing any new development of nuclear weapons. That said, I can think of nothing more calamitous for the planet than to allow countries to build (and perhaps sell which also be considered) nuclear weapons simply because they want them and we have them. To me, national security, indeed world security, must come before the moral imperatives of international consistency. The United States should do everything in its power to prevent new nuclear states, and the best way to do this is to make disincentives to building them, such as Clinton did with N. Korea in 1994. Countries want nukes for a reason (money, prestige, security, etc.) and we should address those reasons as best as possible. However, it is bad enough that we allow our allies to posses them (i.e. Israel), I would not see them fall into the hands of our enemies, even a democratic one.

2) “On this matter, the Israelis are the ones who must make a substantial concession of some sort to the Palestinians.”

I agree 100%. However, I also believe that it takes 2 to make peace and the golden offer came in 2000. Although many critics of Israel have tried (successfully, I might add) to pretend that the offer was terrible, or that there was some hidden clause, the reality is that Arafat was offered almost everything he could ever hope to get. His choice was neither to accept the offer, nor to continue negotiating, but to terminate the talks (perhaps anticipating a better offer after the election of a different president, who can say).

2a) “The Palestinians are the displaced people whose abominable acts of terrorism are really the only means they have to fight for their rights (they have no centralized government and no standing army).”

To this, I cannot agree, as it (perhaps unintentionally) legitimizes terrorism as an acceptable, or at the very least reasonable tactic. There are numerous alternatives to terrorism, such as non-terrorism (which Israeli public opinion polls indicate would be enough by itself to end the occupation), civil disobedience, guerrilla warfare (to be distinguished from terrorism in the fact that the former targets military personnel in the disputed territory, not civilians in the homeland of the occupier), and finally, negotiation (which Israel has always maintained was its preference in any absence of terrorism). I would add that the opportunity to form such a government was offered in 1993, and between then and the 2nd intafadeh, control of Palestinian civil society (schools, police, government) was in the hands of the PA, not the Israelis.

2b) “Israel must take the high road, even if it means a few more years of bus explosions. The Arab terrorism will fade out once mainstream Palestinians believe that they are being taken seriously and have a real stake in stability.”

Because I could never make such a concession in my own country, where my family and friends are being asked to risk death for the sake of waiting for the terrorists to come to their senses, so to speak, I could not ask this of another country. If AQ attacked the United States from Afghanistan almost continuously, with the full support and finances of the country and its neighbors, how many attacks would provoke a response? I would argue that the answer is approximately 1-2.

2c) “Keep in mind, fifty years of waging its own "war on terror" has proved fruitless for Israel.”

I would argue that since the objective of Israel’s enemies has always been the total destruction of the Jewish State, its continual existence and even prosperity in the face of almost constant warfare is a sign of tremendous success.

Gentlemen, I am aware that the Israeli/Palestinian issue provokes passions and convictions on both sides, each of us believing that history and morality are on our side. I think we can all agree however that the sooner the conflict is settled, with two peaceful democratic states living side by side, the better the world will be.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/14/2004

No democratic regime in the Middle East could ultimately tolerate a situation in which its principle nonrenewable natural resource was being exported at prices low enough to admit of it being used as fuel. The Neoconservatives problem is that they want a regime strong enough to stand up to Al Quada, but not strong enough to stand up to Halliburton. That is a contradiction in terms. Compared to containing a popular insurgency, telling some foreign profiteers to get the hell out of your country is a relatively simple task.

The Nehru/Gandhi dynasty in India may fairly be called the great hope of third-world democracy. No other regime has come close to it in terms of combining freedom, justice, and social progress with public order and economic progress, and doing this outside of a trading enclave. One might cite Singapore (with its faults), but Singapore is a city-state, and if its hinterland were included, Singapore would look considerably worse. That said, India' first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had no compunction about suppressing the princely states, and invading the Portuguese colony in Goa. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, split off Bangladesh from Pakistan. This was in effect their version of the Monroe Doctrine.

If a hypothetical democratic Iraq had followed Indian precepts, then, in the 1960's, as the British withdrew from the Arabian peninsula, the Iraqis (or more probably, a United Arab Republic) would have moved in. As late as the late 1970's, it was probably feasible for Iraq to simply occupy the oil fields.

For Indian princes, see:
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, _Freedom at Midnight_, 1975, ch. 7, "Palaces and Tigers, Elephants and Jewels"

Ben H. Severance - 9/14/2004

Peter, a few comments regarding your caveats and cases in point:

Caveat One. I think the rule of law is inherent in the notion of genuine democracy, at least the Western style of democracy.

Caveat Two. Your concern about the facade of democracy is well-founded. The Soviets used the term as a euphemism for their Warsaw Pact. Similarly, the current U.S. effort at nation-building in Iraq suffers from the dangers of imposing democracy from above (and from the outside). I think Americans are going to have to tolerate a certain amount of civil unrest, even civil war, in Iraq before a democracy burgeons. But, letting a civil war run its course is probably unacceptable to American foreign policy makers, regardless of party. So, the challenge for the U.S. is knowing when to intervene, for how long, and which faction to support, if any. I think of the American Civil War. What if Britain had actively sided with the Confederacy in its fight for democratic independence? What would have been the longterm ramifications. Britain's immediate interests lay with the Confederacy, but I think it was best that Britain remained neutral and let the war run its course.

Case in Point One. If a truly democratic Saudi Arabia sought a nuclear arsenal, then the U.S. must let it come to pass. Keep in mind your own concern over hypocrisy. How can the nuclear U.S. deny such weapons to another freely elected, stable nation? This doesn't mean the U.S. should ever sit on its hands over the issue of nuke proliferation in the hands of terrorists, but that it must understand that nuclear power is a natural byproduct of industrialization, which is an outgrowth of capitalism, which flourishes best under a democracy.

Case in Point Two (and here I address some of Adam's comments). U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian troubles have offered little longterm solutions. The U.S. must stop leaning toward Israel and encourage real cooperation. On this matter, the Israelis are the ones who must make a substantial concession of some sort to the Palestinians. The Palestinians are the displaced people whose abominable acts of terrorism are really the only means they have to fight for their rights (they have no centralized government and no standing army). To be sure, I agree with Adam that the Palestinian leadership is poor, and the sooner Arafat dies of natural causes the better, but Israel must take the high road, even if it means a few more years of bus explosions. The Arab terrorism will fade out once mainstream Palestinians believe that they are being taken seriously and have a real stake in stability. Keep in mind, fifty years of waging its own "war on terror" has proved fruitless for Israel. The specter of hate and violence is as prevalent as it was in the days of Ben-Gurion.


Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/14/2004

We will simply have to agree to disagree on this issue. To me, the hypocrisy of the American government comes in supporting unambiguously undemocratic authoritarian regimes, not in supporting the only democracy in that region. Certainly, I have no huge endorsement of the current Israeli government, but the real hypocrisy would be to invade and occupy Afghanistan after being attacks by people hiding in that country, and then to condemn Israel for utilizing the exact same tactic against terrorists operating in the territories.

As for the settlers, it should be a non-issue. Why should they have to go anywhere? Why not make peace and if Jewish settlers happen to soon find themselves in a Palestinian state, they will have to abide by the laws and rules of that country. This is the only issue in the world in which the precondition for statehood is the total “Judenrein” of the land. But I digress. The point is how to encourage democratic reform and the greatest enemy to the Palestinians is as it always was: corrupt leaders who needs to be the victim in order to stay in power. That is what we should be fighting.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/13/2004

I agree with much of your post. You are quite correct, democracy that precedes a modern liberal education system, freedoms of press, speech, and religion, and other rights will simply produce a nation of fanatics who will either vote themselves out of power, or find themselves manipulated by the same despots who previously ruled as oligarchs.

Particularly, I would sooner see a dictator like Musharaf running Pakistan than risk turning the country over to its population. Ditto with Egypt and of course, Saudi Arabia.

The only part of your post that I do not agree with is your analysis of Israel and the Palestinians. Certainly, the region would be far better if the Palestinians could dispose of their corrupt leadership and obtain democracy, but I am not sure how to make that happen (although I have my ideas) and the only blame for this lies the same place it lies for much of the world: their own failed leaders who care more about power and money than about their own people. In any event, I would argue that the issue is of no relevance to the current discussion. Israel is doing nothing to prevent the Palestinians from becoming a democratic state. The Israeli barrier bears no resemblance of any kind to the Berlin wall, nor is its function simply to appease the settlers (whom I in know way endorse).

With the exception of that one caveat, I think the rest of your post is correct, particularly in connecting this article with the one on nuclear weapons.