Spreading democracy to the Middle East, a region that’s been resistant to such reform, has become a pillar of American foreign policy.
In a February 2003 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, then-President George W. Bush said, “A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region … Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state.”
Yet, despite efforts to spread democracy, particularly in Iraq, the U.S. has yet to force this vision into existence. The world has borne witness over the past few months to revolutionary movements in Egypt, Tunisia, the Ivory Coast and Libya, as well as mass protests in other countries such as Bahrain and Syria.
In contrast to American foreign policy, these phenomenal events illustrate that a coercive method of spreading democracy is not the only or, for that matter, the appropriate approach for changing regimes.
The evolving political forces now calling for democracy in the region have developed autonomously without inspiration from the West. The revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt stemmed in large part from a desire for economic growth and dissatisfaction with authoritarian government.
There is, though, one way in which America can claim credit for uprisings in the Middle East. It was American support for some of these despotic regimes that allowed them to survive for so long. Indeed, the U.S. gives Egypt more than $1 billion in military aid each year, according to Slate Magazine. Certainly, some of that money has helped government forces suppress and kill protesters in that country.
A phenomenon as complex as democracy requires more than just intervention by outside actors, as the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan shows. It requires a nation of people to call upon such reform when they find it’s essential for the life they want to live.
These revolutions are spreading rapidly throughout the Middle East because people are empowered by their neighbors, friends and family across religious and national boundaries. These citizens have demonstrated that the masses can transform the power and political structures that have subjugated them to oppression in the past.
Optimism is permeating throughout Arab communities that have been dominated by a host of dictatorial powers both domestically and internationally throughout their histories. Thanks to technologies such as Twitter and exposure to democratic ideals through the media, citizens have finally gained the strength for democratic reform.
Foreign policymakers and other actors should use these uprisings to realize that the American goal of “spreading democracy” is no longer attainable in an increasingly multi-polar world that has witnessed the decline of American hegemony and prestige.
Clearly, countries yearning for freedom will look to Egypt and Tunisia for encouragement, not Iraq or Afghanistan as Bush or former Vice President Dick Cheney might want to believe.
Sumeyra Aydemir is a senior majoing in international studies.