Brookings’ Shadi Hamid has made a good point here – there was an Arab democratic upsurge in 2005, although it was quickly stifled as Islamist groups were elected into power.
In 2011, the Middle East witnessed the second ‘Arab Spring.’ The first—now somewhat forgotten—took place in 2005. President George W. Bush had announced in November 2003 a “forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East.” In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, he declared: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
The Bush administration cited democracy promotion among the reasons for its invading Iraq and toppling dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. As dubious, cynical and inconsistent as they may have been, Bush’s policies helped produce an otherwise unlikely outcome. The year 2005 saw the largest outpouring of pro-democracy activism the region had ever seen up until then. On January 31, 2005, Iraqis braved terrorist threats to cast meaningful ballots for the first time. In Bahrain, fifty thousand Bahrainis—one-eighth of the population—rallied for constitutional reform. And there was, of course, the Cedar Revolution, which led to a removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory. The Iraq war frightened Arab regimes into thinking that President Bush was serious about his democratizing mission.
However, after a succession of Islamist election victories in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, the United States backed off from its aggressive pro-democracy posture. With a deteriorating security situation in Iraq, a rising Iran, and a smoldering Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Arab democracy came to seem an unaffordable luxury. This was not a time for unsettling friendly Arab autocrats. Their Islamist competitors, known for their inflammatory anti-Americanism, were, at best, an unknown quantity. American policymakers shared an instinctive distrust of Islamists and made little effort to understand how they had changed. At worst, Americans feared, the Islamists would use their newfound power to roll back U.S. influence in the region.
So here’s a question: why is Libya so different from Iraq? Why is it ok for the US to intervene when Muammar Gaddafi is slaughtering his own people, but not when Saddam Hussein is doing it (which he had done many times, by the way)? Some peopled will talk about Arab League support, but surely intervening to save civilians from a despotic ruler isn’t reliant on assention from a group of other dictators, who would not hesitate to do the same to their own people if they deemed it necessary.
So again, did the Iraq war actually help the Middle East move toward democracy?
I did have one issue with what Hamid was saying:
There was no need to follow a sequence—economic reform first, democracy later—or meet a long list of prerequisites. Arabs, it turns out, did not have to wait for democracy. More importantly, they didn’t want to. The hundreds of millions of dollars in civil society aid had been rendered beside the point. America’s caution, hedging of bets, and fetish for gradualism—previously the hallmarks of hard-headed realpolitik—proved both foolhardy and naïve. Of course, Americans always said they knew this: freedom and democracy was not the province of one people or culture, but a universal right.
Everyone is getting way ahead if themselves here. Look at the lesson outlined above from 2005 – democracy requires more than overthrowing the dictators. As I’ve said before, the Arab states have a long way to go before they can be called “democratic”.