Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov

"U.S. Retreats from Theory of Democratic Transformation in the Middle East"

An important motive behind the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq was the goal of fostering democracy in the Middle East.

This motive, recognized as critical to U.S. interests following the September 11 attacks, is based upon the belief that autocratic, non-democratic states have a higher potential to create disaffected individuals who join political groups that seek to use violence to exercise their political grievances. This pattern is especially prevalent in the Middle East, where autocracy is the norm and where most of the militants attacking U.S. interests are located.

Therefore, following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration argued that the successful formation of democracy in Iraq would serve as an example to other Middle Eastern states. For one, it would provide a warning that the creation of a functioning market democracy in the region is possible, even through the use of force by an outside power. Additionally, by transforming Iraq from a country ruled by a dictator to one ruled by a democratically elected government, Washington hoped that citizens of autocratic states in the region would no longer stand by obediently while they were forced to obey an unpopular and autocratic regime.

While this was an important motive behind the intervention in Iraq, it has now lost support with Washington policymakers in addition to many insiders within the Bush administration. The reason behind this loss of support has been the continuous failure to transform Iraq into a market democracy. While it is still possible to arrest Iraq's present downward trend, until that moment occurs there will be little support for further test cases of democratic transformation in the Middle East.

The Theory of Democratic Transformation in the Middle East

With the 2000 election win of the Bush administration, the administration appointed a select few individuals among the neo-conservative class of the American political spectrum. These officials -- with the most prominent neo-conservative represented by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- were branded with a certain sense of idealism, believing that a democratic transformation of the Middle East was very possible through outside intervention, explaining why this political class has been labeled "democratic imperialists."

For example, before the invasion of Iraq began, influential members of the American Enterprise Institute -- one of the leading institutions of neo-conservative thought -- released repeated statements arguing the positive effects that an invasion of Iraq would bring. Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the Institute, stated in August 2002, "Change toward democratic regimes in Tehran and Baghdad would unleash a tsunami across the Islamic world."

In September 2002, Michael Ledeen, a freedom scholar with the Institute, called for the United States to begin "a vast democratic revolution to liberate all the peoples of the Middle East." Ledeen succinctly argued the critical point of this theory, announcing that "it is impossible to imagine that the Iranian people would tolerate tyranny in their own country once freedom had come to Iraq. Syria would follow in short order." President Bush himself stated in his 2004 State of the Union address that "…we will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, so those nations can light the way for others, and help transform a troubled part of the world."

Theoretically, a democratic transformation of the Middle East could occur following the successful implantation of a market democracy there. However, the reason that this theory is hinged too much on idealism is that it exaggerates the ability of an outside power to create such a structure. Furthermore, the difference in culture and values between the implanting power -- the United States -- and the recipient states -- predominately of Islamic culture -- also works negatively against the success of such a theory.

Iraq: The Theory's First Test Case

These doubts were manifested in the U.S. intervention of Iraq. While it only took weeks to eliminate the Ba'athist regime, two years have passed and there is still little stability throughout the country. Indeed, there is no evidence to definitively state whether progress is being made or lost. According to U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, who just returned from Iraq, and a member of the Bush administration's Republican Party, the situation has become worse in the last year. Speaking to CNN, Chafee said, "It's a very tenuous security situation. I'd been there a year ago -- what a change. … In the Green Zone a year ago we felt very secure. Not so this time."

The Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) has also questioned the viability of the Iraq intervention. The New York Times reported on December 7 that it had received a classified cable from the C.I.A.'s station chief in Baghdad warning that the security situation in Iraq will soon deteriorate further unless some major successes are scored.

Until it can be determined whether progress is being made or lost in Iraq, the intervention will do nothing to encourage other Middle Eastern political leaders and citizens to push for a democratic transformation in their countries; indeed, as of now, it has done the very opposite and has demonstrated the potential anarchy that can erupt following the weakening of a central government or the creation of a temporary power vacuum.

Furthermore, the intervention of Iraq demonstrated the political, military and economic toll that can affect the United States negatively if an intervention goes awry.

For instance, while the Bush administration won the 2004 presidential election, it has lost a lot of support from the American people, and the population itself is split almost evenly into two political camps. Much of this national divergence can be blamed on the impact of the Iraq intervention to both the U.S. military and economy.

The United States has lost over 1000 soldiers in Iraq, and it has been forced to keep over 100,000 troops in the country, with the total troop commitment presently hovering around 150,000. This sort of troop obligation has stretched the U.S. military to the point where its present global commitment is simply unsustainable. The ramifications of the extended troop commitment to Iraq are already evident, seen through the May 2004 decision to withdraw an army brigade from the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea to Iraq.

Finally, the funds required to sustain present operations in Iraq are exorbitant, helping to swell the U.S. budget deficit to $413 billion. Over the long-term, continued high spending in Iraq could bring economic problems, such as an extended trade deficit and high inflation.  

All of these factors explain how the intervention of Iraq has given the United States little ability to engage in future interventions, whether for another test of democratic transformation or even for legitimate national security concerns. The troop commitment and financial costs being usurped by the Iraq intervention has weakened the ability of the United States to project its power in the world.

If the Bush administration were to have seriously considered all the likely scenarios involved in the intervention in Iraq -- including worst case scenarios -- it is doubtful that it would have carried through with the invasion. The success of the neo-conservative vision of democratic transformation hinged on the realization of a best-case scenario, which was a reality that failed to occur. As clearly argued by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz before the invasion, "I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep [troop] requirements down."

Instead, the United States hasn't yet had the luxury to work on a true democratic transformation in Iraq because it is still trying to foster some sort of stability in the country. As stated by retired Army Colonel Raoul Alcala, who served as an advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, "Plan A – what the U.S. actually did – failed, and Plan B – the adaptations since the end of 'major combat' -- hasn't worked either, so far." This leaves the United States in the awkward position of not being able to resort to a viable military and political strategy.

Retreat from the Democratic Transformation Theory

The Bush administration's retreat from its vision of a transformation to market democracy for Middle Eastern states is evident in the lead-up to the December 11 summit meeting in Morocco intended to promote democracy across the region. U.S. officials have made clear that they will not demand the region's leaders to reform, instead coming with a package of financial and social initiatives -- plans that will not create much discomfort in the region's autocracies. Middle East analysts Tamara Cofman Wittes and Sarah Yerkes of the Brookings Institution point to the problems of this strategy: "Economic reform is something for which nearly all Arab governments are willing to accept assistance, regardless of the donor, but whether economic change can contribute to the degree of liberalization that the United States sees as necessary to reduce political extremism is uncertain."

Discussing the upcoming meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a radio interview that he hoped the Middle Eastern states attending the Morocco summit meeting would "come to an understanding of the need for reform and modernization in the broader Middle East and North Africa region." This is far from the administration's stance in January of 2004, when President Bush announced, "As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friend."


One of the prime motives for the intervention in Iraq was to test the neo-conservative theory of democratic transformation in the Middle East. This theory's chance for success was questionable from the very beginning, since there are few historical examples of an outside power intervening in a country with vast cultural differences and successfully implementing a market democracy there. Additionally, Iraq was a very poor choice for the execution of this theory to begin with, considering that the country has never settled the question of how power will be shared between its three main ethnic/religious groups; creating a power vacuum in such a state is a sure way to pull the intervening power into the center of civil strife and potential civil war.

The Bush administration and the United States have discovered all of these difficulties in Iraq and are struggling to create some sense of stability. The overbearing cost of the Iraq intervention -- in terms of political, military and economic costs -- has demanded the full attention of the Bush administration, and it is unrealistic to expect the administration to push for further democratic transformations elsewhere in the region.

Instead, the administration can be expected to cut its geostrategic losses and try to preserve the gains it has made. A retreat from Iraq would be a devastating development to the image of the United States in the eyes of its detractors, and would likely act as a huge boon for al-Qaeda's recruitment ability, similar to the effect that resulted from the Islamist victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It would also have the potential of weakening U.S. power in the world, although this could be easily prevented by strong shows of force by the United States in regional hotspots.

Nevertheless, because retreat carries such negative connotations, the Bush administration will isolate itself from policies that have as their potential outcome further political, military and economic pressure brought to bear on the United States. For the time being, and until conditions turn favorably in Iraq, the Bush administration can be expected to shelve any serious designs at democratic transformation in the Middle East.

Erich Marquardt


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