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Between idealism and realpolitik

By Benjamin MacQueen - posted Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Bush Administration’s avowed goal of fundamentally re-orienting US Middle Eastern policy away from appeasement of regional autocracies to “walking the talk” on promoting political reform has run aground.

From its halcyon period between 2004 and 2006, Bush’s “Forward Strategy of Freedom in the Middle East” has not prevented the collapse of Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution, the “re-election” of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the empowerment of Iran, and the on-going humanitarian disaster in Gaza and the West Bank among other issues. More importantly, the policy has empowered autocratic regimes across the region.

Indeed, Kings Abdullah (both Saudi and Jordanian) and Presidents Mubarak, Bouteflika, and even Assad find themselves in the driver’s seat, able to dictate terms to an administration who is desperately trying to salvage what it can from its policy as a means to ensure its legacy.


This problem, in large part, has stemmed from the assumptions inherent in the Bush administration’s agenda. In particular, the ideological drive of the policy of democracy promotion has blinded the administration to the functioning of political power among Arab states. Where the current US-led democracy promotion has focused on seeking to empower formal political institutions such as electoral systems and parliaments alongside civil society, it fails to account for the functioning of real power through duplicate, informal “shadow” institutions through which regimes exercise their authority.

By pursuing the policy in its current form, the Bush administration has strengthened the hand of the very regimes it seeks to pressure into reform.

When unpacking this, it is easy to resort to conspiratorial theories to account for the profound change of direction towards the Middle East under the Bush administration. In particular, that there was no real change at all, that its policies are part of a grand design to sow the seeds of instability as a means to ensure US dominance. This is erroneous. Certainly, the US wishes for its interests to hold sway across this most vital of regions. But what is apparent, particularly when speaking to current and former administration officials is that there is a deep ideological drive pushing this policy.

Views on this differ from more sympathetic accounts of one current senior State Department official who sees the policy as “part of who Bush is”, to less compassionate views expressed by a former member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq who sees a “pathology in the administration”, one that ignores any contrary argument and advice counter to its grand vision of reshaping the region.

At the vanguard of the administration’s policy is the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a department located within the Near East Affairs bureau of the State Department. MEPI was created prior to September 11, 2001 as a “moderate states initiative” but quickly morphed into the primary funding channel by which the administration identifies and sponsors regional civil society organisations and other bodies it sees as the key agents of change. It quickly caused a stir, in part due to the working style of its then-head Liz Cheney and its efforts to unseat what one supporter of the administration has labelled as “dead-wood careerists” who “felt threatened” by the dynamism of the new agency.

Aside from the tension between government departments that is consistent in all political systems, there is a notable dysfunctionality among the democracy promotion agencies in Washington caused by the highly political and ideological nature of the policy. There is little direct contact between agencies such as MEPI and USAID - a remarkable situation considering the apparent complementarily of their work as well as their physical proximity.


This in-fighting has compounded the reluctance of those guiding the current policy to ask the questions of not only whether change can be promoted from outside, but more fundamentally, what accounts for the resilience of these regimes they are seeking to reform.

Despite the myriad contacts between the “democracy promotion” agencies and their colleagues throughout the Middle East (and there are many), it is the issue of political institutions, or more correctly their weakness, manipulation and informal duplication, that escapes their gaze.

Political institutions across the Middle East and North Africa are hollow. Where institutions should serve as, what one leading Lebanese activist describes as, “incubators of leadership”, they instead perpetuate existing elites and elite structures. Political turnover occurs only through inheritance or through the use of force among elites with institutions serving the interests of the elites.

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin MacQueen is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne. He researches US democracy promotion policy in the Arab world.

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