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.
“The West, and particularly the United States, needs to change the incentives created by present foreign policy so as to facilitate, not discourage, democratic development in the Muslim world.”
- Noah Feldman
Author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy
“The United States faces a tremendous problem of credibility in asserting itself as a pro-democratic actor in the Middle East. Confronted with the notion that the Bush administration is now committed to democracy in the region, many Arabs react with incredulity, resentment, and downright anger.”
- Thomas Carothers
Director, Democracy and Rule of Law Project, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“Democratic development in the Arab world depends, as it does elsewhere, on internal debates about national identity, interests, values and purpose. The difference between democracy and the status quo is that decisions will flow from the many, not just the few. This does not guarantee that we will agree with those decisions or that they will be the right ones, only that they will be legitimate. That is enough.”
— Madeleine Albright
U.S. Secretary of State, 1997-2001