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Democracy Promotion in the Middle East and the Obama Administration

February 16, 2009 POST BY: The Century Foundation TOPICS: Foreign Policy

The Bush administration’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East, which the former president aggressively touted till Arab publics voted for officials who opposed his policies, “was a failure of both conceptualization and implementation,” policy expert Brian Katulis writes in a new paper published by The Century Foundation, but far from abandoning the cause, President Obama should “launch a pragmatic reform effort that discards the label” but supports “Arab publics’ own well documented aspirations for democracy and human rights.”

Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who served on the State Department’s policy planning staff in the last years of the Clinton administration after living and working on the ground for the National Democratic Institute in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, insists that the “approach will require a democracy promotion strategy that is linked to an overall rethinking of the U.S. national security approach to the Middle East.”

“Tinkering with minor changes in various democratic assistance packages is not likely to have much of an impact,” he writes in the report, Democracy Promotion in the Middle East and the Obama Administration.

Having careened between hard-fisted realpolitik conservatism and fanciful neoconservative illusions in dealing with the Middle East and terrorist movements spawned by unrest there, “the Bush administration sent a message that the democracy and freedom agenda was first and foremost self-interested and aimed at transforming societies for America’s benefit,” Katulis writes. The invasion of Iraq, torture and human rights abuses, and “an overemphasis on military means,” he adds, “sent a message that was counterproductive.”

President Obama “should change the way it discusses these reform efforts, presenting them as cooperative, pragmatic efforts aimed at advancing development and promoting internationally recognized norms rather than as a self-interested crusade,” Katulis asserts:

First and foremost, democracy promotion needs to be de-linked from (and no longer subordinated to) efforts to suppress jihadist terror.

The new administration must show that the United States practices what it preaches, by adhering to treaty obligations barring torture, prescribing treatment of war prisoners, and upholding civil and political rights.

The United States needs to give priority to bringing closure to the Arab-Israeli conflict, tackling its “Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Syrian, and Israeli-Lebanese tracks,” which roils so much of Arab politics—and “it needs to move quickly.”

Washington needs to develop joint efforts to advance democracy in the Middle East with the European Union, Japan, and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank.

With the United States “supporting the military and intelligence agencies of countries in the Middle East,” and the Pentagon increasingly “shaping how governments enforce the rule of law, police their communities, and deal with security threats” in the Middle East,” American military and intelligence interactions with Arab government counterparts need to be recast to support the democracy-building agenda.

Rather than resisting Islamist parties because of their religious inspiration, the United States should be willing to work actively with them—except for extremist movements on its foreign terrorist organization list.

“Making this shift in strategy will require significant changes in how the United States implements its national security policies,” Katulis concludes. “But the most important step that the United States and the full range of U.S. institutions and organizations can do to advance human rights and democracy in the Middle East is to practice what it preaches—lead by example and ensure that its actions match the democratic values and ideals it seeks to advance in the Middle East.”

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Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy

In the first years of the new century, an assertive foreign policy took a toll on the cultivated role of the U.S. as a responsible global leader. The Century Foundation's work in this area provides perspective on the international difficulties the U.S. is facing today, while providing policy recommendations to promote the nation's security interests. Our research and analysis focuses on effectively responding to challenges in the Middle East and Pakistan, as well as responding to international crime.

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