Arab unrest: How unstable will the Middle East's new democracies be?

Military analysis.
June 3 2011 6:54 PM

Arab Summer

How unstable will the Middle East's new democracies be?

Anti-government protestors show the 'tumbs-down' as they shout demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Click image to expand.
Protesters the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah 

As the Arab Spring soars, limps, sputters, and stalls—some societies inching toward a new civil order, some erupting in chaos, others' fates still very much up in the air—the only surprise is that anyone should be surprised by what's happening.

Revolutions tend to be messy and protracted, and the political revolutions stirring the Middle East and northern Africa have gone on now for barely four months—an eternity in cable news land but less than a finger snap in the storybook of history. No wonder, then, that the narrative threads are jutting every which way, their courses, much less outcomes, uncertain.

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But while the ousting of the tyrants (those who have been ousted anyway) is still a cause for celebration, there is a deeper reason to be nervous about where this thing is heading.

There is a school of thought, especially popular among neoconservatives, that the spread of democracy makes the world more peaceful. Yet, while it's true that mature democracies tend to be peaceful and almost never go to war with one another, emerging democracies tend to be more violent and aggressive than any other type of regime—and they are more likely to break out in civil war or revert to autocratic rule.

This is the grim conclusion of a book published in 2005 called Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, written by two political scientists, Edward Mansfield of the University of Pennsylvania and Jack Snyder of Columbia University.

Exceptions to this rule abound, of course. Mansfield and Snyder, working from an exhaustive historical database, lay out the conditions for smooth and successful democratization. These conditions include a literate population, a fairly prosperous and diverse economy, potentially democratic institutions (a functioning judiciary, free press, honest police, etc.), and a state apparatus capable of mediating and administering disputes among competing social and political groups.

By these criteria, the prospects for the Arab revolutions would seem to range from fair (Tunisia and Egypt) to poor (pretty much all the other countries), at least in the short to middle term.

This is what George W. Bush failed to grasp when he declared democracy-promotion to be the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He often stated—and, by all accounts, believed—that freedom was God's gift to humanity. This belief implies that liberty is humanity's default mode; that, therefore, once a tyrant is overthrown, democracy would gush forth like an uncapped volcano.

And so, in his second inaugural address, Bush hailed the various revolutions that were budding all around—the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the free elections in Iraq—as signs that "freedom is on the march." But hailing them was all he did. He did little to help the fledgling regimes blossom (after all, the lilies of the field neither toil nor spin), and so they wilted on the vine.

By the end of his term, Bush had pretty much dropped the "freedom agenda." His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who in 2005 told students in Cairo that henceforth the United States valued liberty over stability—and promised them "that all free nations will stand with you as you secure the blessings of your own liberty"—returned to Cairo a mere two years later to thank President Hosni Mubarak, in a public press conference, "for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest." She added, "Obviously, the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship, one that we value greatly."

Since the beginning of American history, especially since the end of World War II, our presidents and diplomats have grappled with the tension between our moral values and our material interests. The difference between George W. Bush and Barack Obama is that the former tried to pretend there is no tension (democracies are peaceful; peace promotes our interests; therefore, our values and our interests are as one), while Obama at least senses its tug.

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