The Project on Middle East Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to examining how genuine democracies can develop in the Middle East and how the U.S. can best support that process. Through dialogue, research and advocacy, we work to strengthen the constituency for U.S. policies that peacefully support reform in the Middle East.
- Democracy is an inalienable right. Every political community has the right to govern itself democratically through free, fair and open processes and institutions.
- Democracy functions differently in every country in which it is practiced. This diversity is a central reason why democracy is a universal value and can be adopted successfully by any society.Each country’s citizens, through deliberative processes, have the right to determine the specific nature of their democracy.
- America’s fundamental values call for the U.S. to support democracy. America was founded on the principles of democratic governance and freedom of expression, yet its policy towards the Middle East has often sacrificed democracy at the altar of other interests.To be true to its basic principles, America must consistently and credibly support democracy abroad.
- Supporting democracy in the Middle East is in America’s long-term interest. Continued support for the Middle East’s authoritarian status quo will jeopardize American national security and economic interests.While genuinely promoting democracy requires the courage to bear short-term risks, free and open political processes will ultimately reduce incentives to resort to violence.
- The U.S. cannot be neutral on democracy in the Middle East. The billions of dollars the U.S. provides to Middle Eastern governments each year in economic aid and military assistance reflect America’s substantial and enduring interests in the region and preclude any pretense of neutrality on democracy.The U.S. must carefully examine the consequences of its actions on political reform.
- The U.S. has the potential to make a positive impact on democratization in the Middle East. America has a credibility gap on democracy because it often tolerates authoritarian behavior by friendly regimes while calling for democracy and regime change in unfriendly ones.By consistently supporting democracy, America will begin to overcome this legacy and repair its credibility gap.
- The U.S. must respect democratic outcomes. In the short term, free and fair elections may result in some governments that are less favorable to U.S. interests.Regardless, America must respect democratic processes.The long-term benefits of improved credibility and democracy outweigh the short-term costs.
- Democracy cannot be imposed. Engagement through peaceful means, such as dialogue and diplomacy, is the only legitimate and effective way to promote democracy in the region.The U.S. can and will help but, ultimately, stable and secure democracies in the Middle East can only be built from within.
For the second-half of the 20th century, short-term economic and security concerns have often crowded out America’s long-term interest in political reform in the Middle East, leading the U.S. to strengthen friendly dictatorships rather than support democratization. In practice, American economic aid, military assistance, and diplomatic support often helped these authoritarian governments repress demands for political participation from their own citizens.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a growing recognition that democratic reform in the Middle East should be viewed not merely as a development objective, but as a strategic priority. However, despite the Bush administration’s dramatic rhetorical shift towards a “forward strategy of freedom,” U.S. policy on democracy in the Middle East changed only incrementally in the years that followed. New aid programs have been relatively small, and too frequently paired with mixed diplomatic signals, undermining their impact. Much worse, by linking Western efforts to promote democracy to deeply unpopular military-led regime change, the administration undermined support for “democracy promotion” in the Middle East and the U.S. alike.
POMED believes that democratic reform in the Middle East should be viewed not merely as a goal aligned with American values and human rights, but also as an important strategic priority. U.S. interests are best served by a strong relationship with the people of the Middle East, and that requires a basic recognition of their legitimate aspirations for democratic rights.
As the Middle East undergoes an unprecedented transformation sparked by uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain there is a compelling need to rigorously examine how the U.S. can best support democratic transitions. This involves fostering constructive dialogue among academics and activists, policymakers and practitioners, and Americans and Middle Easterners; identifying the parameters of legitimate, effective support for democracy; and empowering the diverse coalition of actors who support policies consistent with those principles.