Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East

by Dr. Steven Everts
The ‘crisis of governance’ in the greater Middle East has now reached the top of policy-makers’ agenda. Something of a new consensus has emerged – in Europe, America and across the Middle East itself – that ‘Arab state failure’ is not just a political or socio-economic problem, but also the source of many security threats. At the same time, policy-makers lack a clear strategy on how to promote higher standards of governance, more respect for political pluralism and greater religious tolerance.

In dealing with a volatile and complex region, there is a danger that the West will move from crisis to crisis, treating symptoms not causes. In that case, the names of the rogue states, failed states and terrorist groups will change, but not the underlying problems of ossified political systems, growing religious extremism, and widespread anti-Western sentiment in the region. That is why a long-term strategy is needed to transform the ossified political and economic systems of the region.

Too often in the past, Western pressure aimed at structural economic reforms while ignoring the underlying political and social shortcomings, particularly the impact of autocratic systems on development. Frequently, short-term calculations drove Western governments to support ‘moderate’ Arab regimes as these presented themselves as bulwarks against radical Islam. This strategy has had pretty disastrous results: poor development outcomes, more support for political extremist groups (including Islamic fundamentalist ones) and greater migration pressures. More recently, after the September 11th attacks, Western governments have cuddled security and intelligence services in the region – ignoring that these are the main instrument of political repression. The time has come for a more courageous and consistent strategy favouring democratic reforms. Europeans, in particular, need to allocate a more prominent place to democracy and political freedom in their policies; they are too important to be left to the neo-conservatives.

Obviously, if people in the region perceive Western strategy as an attempt to ‘impose democracy’ it is bound to fail. Regional ‘ownership’, as Europeans rightly point out, is crucial. Therefore, Western governments should listen more to what reformers in the region advise. Also, governments must tailor their strategies more specifically to the particular circumstances of individual countries. Methods that may work in one country could easily backfire in another. One of the problems of the US ‘Greater Middle East Initiative’ was that it suggested a one-size-fits-all approach and underplayed the need for democratic reforms to be homegrown. Our task is to design flexible policies to strengthen indigenous political forces pushing for democratic change and to create an external environment favouring peaceful democratic change. Concretely that means working tirelessly for a just and negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ensuring that Iraqis, not Americans nor UN officials, run Iraq as soon as possible.

In many countries democratic activists sit in jail because of their commitment to human rights, yet Western countries do little to help them. We should provide them with consistent political and moral support and raise their plight in all consultations with governments in the region. The West must also allocate a greater proportion of its aid to education and rule of law projects, spending less on capital investment projects. Likewise, it must increase its direct support for local non-governmental organisations and democracy campaigners, channeling less money through government-run channels. The United States now spends nearly $400 billion on defense, while for example the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) struggles on a budget of only about $40 million, a fraction of which is spent in the Greater Middle East. Washington is now doubling that amount, but needs to raise the level of support tenfold, or even more, to make a real impact, allocating it to the NED but also many other US-based NGOs that do crucial work in the region. Similarly, the European Union should increase the funding for its democracy promotion programme to at least € 500 million a year and appoint a dedicated Commissioner for democracy and human rights in the new European Commission that takes office in November 2004. Western countries should also have the courage to link trade and other policies to countries meeting democracy and human rights standards – and do so in a consistent manner, ending the current routine of high-minded rhetoric but multiple standards in practice.

The US deserves huge credit for having kick-started the debate on the democratic deficit. But it must also realise that it has a massive image problem in the Middle East. Because of the debacle in Iraq and Washington’s near-unconditional support for Israel, many in the region distrust America’s motives and sincerity. They argue that America will never accept outcomes of democratic processes if they go against American interests. US leaders should say loudly and openly that this perception is wrong.

Europe can be of help here. For well known reasons it evokes more trust than America. A joint transatlantic strategy for promoting democratic reforms could have three positive effects. First: it could increase the strategy’s chances of success by making sure the message comes from a more trusted source. Second, the US could learn from Europe’s mistakes. Third, a joint strategy, with each side playing to itst strengths, could have real a therapeutic effect on the US-European relationship itself. It could be the common project around which to rebuild the transatlantic partnership. Although there are many obstacles, a robust transatlantic strategy for the greater Middle East is both possible and necessary.

- Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London. This article is part of a series of views on the America’s "Greater Middle East" initiative for reform, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East
A view from Washington
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective
Let us be Democratic about Democracy
The Greater Middle East Initiative
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out
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Other articles in this series

The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership by Senator Richard G. Lugar
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East by Gidi Grinstein
A view from Washington by Pamela and Robert Pelletreau
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges by Shafeeq Ghabra
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective by Dr. Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
Let us be Democratic about Democracy by Dr. Abdul Aziz Said
The Greater Middle East Initiative by Richard W. Murphy
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required by Hazem Saghiyeh
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out by Daoud Kuttab