MESH invites selected authors to offer original first-person statements on their new books—why and how they wrote them, and what impact they hope and expect to achieve. Tamara Cofman Wittes is Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, and a member of MESH. Her new book is Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy.
From Tamara Cofman Wittes
When I began writing Freedom’s Unsteady March, four years ago, I set it up as a two-part argument: why the United States should promote democracy in the Arab world, and then how. I thought the “why” part of the argument would be relatively uncontroversial, but the “how” might be very useful. After all, the notion that democratic growth abroad is in America’s national interest has been a tenet of both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades, but implementation is often complicated both by bureaucratic factors and by misgivings regarding democracy’s impact on other US national interests.
But the fallout from the Iraq war drastically shifted the context in which the book now appears. Today’s presidential candidates are all running away from President Bush’s foreign policy in various ways, and Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”—in particular its association in the public mind with the Iraq war—is a big part of what they are running away from. So today, a book arguing for assertive U.S. efforts to cultivate Arab democracy seems not merely against the tide, but out-of-place entirely: naïve, foolhardy, and simply irrelevant.
My fear is that the book’s argument will be dismissed too quickly in this environment, by those foreign policy commentators who are more focused on bashing Bush than on figuring out what to do instead, and more concerned with America’s global reputation than they are with our global position. My hope is that Freedom’s Unsteady March will help keep open a debate which should not be foreclosed: about whether, when, where and how the United States should seek to advance democracy in the Arab world.
I finished writing the book and sent it to press in the firm belief that, regardless of the whisperings of neo-isolationists on both the left and right in America, regardless of the inevitable onset of ABB (“Anything But Bush”) orientations in U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East is not going away—and despite the wishes of some in the commentariat, the United States is not walking away from the Middle East either, not in any fundamental sense. Given that, it seems to me that the domestic political and economic trends in the region that are challenging governance and legitimacy—trends that are driving leaders’ threat perceptions, shaping their attitudes toward regional issues, and constraining their cooperation with the United States—will remain matters of crucial interest here in Washington. The question is not whether America will influence the future shape of the Arab world, but in what manner, and to what end.
Freedom’s Unsteady March focuses on how regional and global realities affect the durability of Arab autocracies and the environment within which America must continue to pursue its regional interests. Some argue that a pro-democracy American stance will threaten strategic cooperation with Arab allies, and will enable Islamists with questionable democratic credentials to take over the governments of major Arab states. These two concerns long prevented America from even trying to advance democracy in the Middle East, and these same two concerns (and some crucial bad judgments) ultimately doomed Bush’s revolutionary “Freedom Agenda” for the Middle East as well. My book takes on these two problems and unpacks them, showing how America can promote democracy while protecting its other interests. In the silly season of a presidential election, and more importantly when a new administration takes office, I hope my book will help shape a realistic, pragmatic debate about how to do in the Middle East what America has done for every other region of the world: integrate democracy promotion into the daily conduct of American foreign policy.