Elliott Abrams knows all about U.S. efforts to promote democracy.
He was a member of the two presidential administrations most aggressive in democracy promotion the past 50 years, serving as assistant secretary of state for human rights and for inter-American affairs under Ronald Reagan and deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush. (My 12th-grade English teacher, the wife of a Foreign Service officer, said he should have gone to prison for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, a questionable application of that policy 30 years ago.)
Now a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Abrams has written “Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring,” in which he makes a convincing case not only that democracy can succeed in Arab nations, but also that the United States has a crucial role to play in making that happen.
Befitting a book from a think tank, “Realism and Democracy” reads like an extended research paper, starting with a 91-page introduction — more than a third of the text — that surveys 40 years of U.S. human rights policy. But it’s comprehensive research enlightened by front-line, neo-conservative experience, including Abrams’ time as an aide to Democratic Sens. Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Abrams makes two crucial points in setting the stage for his policy prescriptions for the Arab world: Support for human rights is ineffective unless it is part of a policy of democracy promotion, and promoting democracy rarely means military intervention.
Those points help Abrams criticize two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. He argues that Carter engaged in support for individual activists rather than systematic changes and too often accepted the status quo with Communist nations, and he faults Obama for failing to do anything in support of Arab democrats because of a fear that any involvement would lead to military action.
But it would be a shame if people read “Realism and Democracy” through a partisan lens. Abrams points to a time when Democrats like Jackson and Moynihan advocated a foreign policy that kept pressure on regimes oppressing their people, and he challenges the Realpolitik approaches pushed by members of Republican administrations from Richard Nixon on.
Abrams advises an approach that should have bipartisan support. Applying the lessons from the fall of European communism and most Latin American and East Asian authoritarianism, as well as the success of Tunisia and the many failures of the Arab Spring, he calls for focused investment in democracy and a refusal to accept dictators’ claims that the choice is between them and terrorist-supporting Islamists.
The United States should work to develop political parties, not just fund civil society nonprofits, and use its money and clout, including personal engagement by the president, to pressure countries to move toward democracy, which polls consistently show Arabs want.
The goal shouldn’t be political systems that match ours. Freedom to practice religion should be a goal, but that doesn’t mean religion must be separate from the government. Islamists who accept constitutional rules and who run their parties democratically should not be excluded from elections. Dictators should not be propped up with economic aid, nor should security aid go to military and police forces that oppress their citizens.
Abrams’ bottom line is a belief that Arabs share a global desire for freedom that makes undemocratic governments fragile and that the best way to protect American interests, including stopping terrorism, is to actively support democrats and democracy everywhere.