US President Joe Biden has announced a “Summit for Democracy” to take place next week that is designed to showcase his administration’s determination to return the US to a position of global leadership and face down rival powers and regimes on its “unfriendly” list.
Yet, in a world fraught with dystopian democracy, even in the US itself, the two-day virtual meeting seems to be a manifestation of arrogant thinking on the part of the US and a repeat of its foreign-policy failures.
If statements by administration officials are any guide, the first-of-its-kind conference is a test of Biden’s campaign pledge that the work of the summit will be to build strategies to strengthen and defend democracies against authoritarianism.
There are 110 invitees on the US state department’s list for the get-together on 9 and 10 December, with China and Russia notably excluded along with other countries viewed by the US as authoritarian or not democratically governed according to the bar set by the summit.
But while the US has long been criticised for having a record of inconsistency in promoting democracy around the world, this event in particular has drawn criticism for having a larger geopolitical ambition, primarily to counter China’s and Russia’s rising influence.
While the global conference is meant to be an opportunity for the US to highlight its agenda for human rights and civil liberties around the world, the Arab world, which has often been a target of US democracy rhetoric, seems to be receiving little attention on the summit’s agenda.
Most of the Arab countries, including regional heavyweights defined as major US allies, are missing from the invitation list. The region, once the focal point of US efforts to promote democracy, is not high on the summit’s agenda.
Among those represented at the summit next week are the leaders of Israel and Iraq, and the fact that they alone represent the Middle East has raised eyebrows among activists and analysts who consider the two countries as being not real democracies.
Assessments of Israel as a liberal democracy have always been challenged, even by Israeli scholars, due to its prolonged occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories and its human rights record that does not qualify as an asset for joining the democracy club.
Prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has concluded that “Israel falls far short of being a true democracy,” showing that it systematically discriminates against Arabs who form one fifth of its citizens but do not enjoy equal rights.
The debate on Israel as an anti-democratic state has recently been reinforced by Tel Aviv’s alliance with autocratic Arab regimes and its sharing advanced technology with them. This has included Israeli-made hacking devices being used to spy on Arab journalists as well as pro-democracy and human rights activists.
The invitation of Israel to the summit is thus being seen as part of the traditional US policy that has promoted Israel as an “oasis of democracy” in the Middle East and as a way of containing anti-Israel sentiments and justifying US support for pro-Israeli policies.
Iraq is another story of disillusioned democracy promotion. The consensus system of democracy that the US tried to impose after its invasion of the country in 2003 has failed Iraq, bringing a dystopian sectarian-based power-sharing system and a dysfunctional government that has inflicted more misery on its long-suffering people.
Today, Iraq is a nation ruled by sectarian oligarchs who use the ballot box to cement their grip on power. It is afflicted by violence, instability, corruption, poverty, injustice, desperation and daily fear. Iraq has scored poorly on democracy indices, and its system has been described as “electoral autocracy.”
Despite little happening in the Arab region with regard to Biden’s Democracy Summit, the US is still expected to live up to its reputation for conducting a hotchpotch foreign policy in the Middle East, navigating between serving its own interests, committing itself rhetorically to the region’s well-being and manifesting anti-Arab bigotry.
For decades, all US administrations to varying degrees have preferred to maintain strong relationships and security cooperation with “friendly” regimes over efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.
The dramatic review by the George W Bush administration in the US in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks led US policy-makers to shelve the argument that authoritarian Arab regimes are bulwarks against Islamist radicalism and made them rethink the stability-democracy Middle East strategic equation.
The Bush administration launched an ambitious programme to democratise the “Greater Middle East” and sought to receive support from its partners in the G8 group of nations. It also put enormous pressure on the Arab regimes to open up and to dance to the rhythm of the new US policy of “a forward strategy for freedom” in the Middle East.
However, the scheme contributed to the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and in following years to prolonged and bloody civil wars in these two countries that led to increasing Islamist militancy and the dramatic rise of the Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State (IS) terror groups.
As the US faltered in the two wars, a global jihadist movement emerged, and the fight against terrorism again became the priority instead of democracy.
But it was too late to halt the tide of political turmoil in the region triggered by the US occupation of the two countries when the uprisings of the Arab Spring erupted in 2011. By the end of the decade, the aggressive US policy had done little to accomplish the central goal of securing reform in the Arab world and instead had created further instability in the region.
US efforts to push democratisation forward suffered another blow in the Arab Spring, when the Obama administration in the US had difficulty grasping the new reality in the region and enunciating a strategy that could respond to the conflicts in each Arab country.
Once again, US Middle East policy got bogged down in its old calculation of balancing stability and democracy promotion, fostering uncertainty as the Obama administration oscillated between reinforcing the status quo and disrupting it without engaging in “meaningful political and economic reforms in the region.”
The US is now even further behind the curve in its ability to offer a case for promoting democracy as it prepares to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. This has been made crystal clear by Washington’s failure in both Tunisia and Sudan, where there has been significant backsliding despite the US engagement to safeguard the political transition.
In addition to being seen as a cover to advance its geopolitical objectives, another reason why the US Summit for Democracy may prove ineffective is the obstacles to democracy in the US itself, meaning that it is seen as acting under false pretences in seeking to democratise other countries.
The US model of democracy is being increasingly seen as tarnished by the rule of oligarchies from the US business elite and other interest groups.
A report by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance issued last month added the US to its list of “backsliding democracies” and concluded that it also “fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”
The democracy deficit in the Arab world has been a persistent one despite efforts at political, social and economic development in the region. Yet, doubts abound whether the US virtual Summit for Democracy will be responsive to the issues of governance and reform that matter for publics around the Arab world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.