With Iraq rapidly descending into bloody chaos, the prospects for holding successful democratic elections in January, as the United States and the Iraqi interim government have promised, look bleak. Some skeptics go further, arguing that the Iraq debacle proves that prospects for democracy throughout the Arab world are dim. Are they right?
Half the world's countries are democracies, yet none of the 22 Arab countries is among them. The United Nations' "Arab Human Development Report" is frank in its criticism of the region's economic and social progress. Economic growth has been slow, approximately half of the women are illiterate, and the region is not well integrated into the world economy. Indeed, with a population of more than 300 million, Arab countries export less to the world, excluding oil and gas, than Finland.
An enormous "youth bulge" in the Arab world's demographic tables looms, with 45 percent of the population now under the age of 14, and the population as a whole set to double over the next quarter-century. Yet the region has inadequate opportunities for young people to find meaningful work. Unemployment hovers at 20 percent. At the same time, the Middle East is awash with modern communications, much of it with an anti-Western slant.
During the Cold War, America's approach to the Middle East was to foster stability in order to prevent the spread of Soviet influence, ensure the supply of oil, and provide security for Israel. The American strategy was management through autocratic leaders, and a "don't rock the boat" approach.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched an ambitious new policy to encourage a democratic transformation of the Middle East. Saddam Hussein's removal was intended as only the first step. In August 2003, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice argued that "much as a democratic Germany became a linchpin of a new Europe that is today whole, free, and at peace, so a transformed Iraq can become a key element in a very different Middle East in which the ideologies of hate will not flourish."
Germany and Japan were, indeed, postwar success stories. But both were relatively homogeneous societies with significant middle classes and no organized resistance to American occupation. Yet both transitions still took nearly a decade. Moreover, Iraq's possession of oil is a mixed blessing, because few oil-based economies have proven hospitable to liberal democracy.
Moreover, cultural differences between the U.S. and Germany were not as great as those between the U.S. and the Middle East. Of course, cultural barriers are not insurmountable: Democracy has taken root in Japan, South Korea and in other Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh. But the time horizons required for a fundamental makeover are measured in decades, not years.
Democracy is, after all, more than mere voting. Since the Middle East's autocratic regimes destroyed their liberal oppositions, in many countries radical Islamists represent the only dissent, feeding on widespread resentment of corrupt regimes, opposition to American policies, and popular fears of modernization and globalization.
At the same time, the global economy and modernization can also promise better education, more jobs and opportunities, and improved health care; and opinion polls indicate that a majority of the region's population desires these benefits. Given ambivalence among Arab moderates, there remains a chance to isolate the extremists and gradually build stable polities with broader participation.
To achieve this will require policies that open up economies, reduce bureaucratic controls, speed economic growth, improve educational systems and encourage the types of gradual political changes now seen in small countries like Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco. Japan and Korea demonstrated that democracy could be combined with indigenous values in Asia. The Arab world, too, can develop intellectuals, social groups, and eventually countries with liberal economies and societies that are consistent with local cultures. But this will take time and patience - and it will need to be accompanied by policy changes on Iraq, Palestine-Israel, and the regional economy.
Equally important will be whether Western countries cooperate to create a long-term strategy of cultural and educational exchanges that can help develop a richer and more open civil society in Middle Eastern countries. The most effective advocates for democratic change are not American or European officials, but citizens of the region who understand Western virtues as well as flaws - and can adapt them to indigenous conditions to press for social change.
Corporations, foundations, universities and other non-profit organizations can promote much of this work. Companies and foundations can offer technology to help modernize Arab educational systems and take them beyond rote learning. Western universities can host more students and faculty. Other organizations can support specific institutions in Arab countries, or programs that enhance the professionalism of journalists.
But governments also have an important role to play. By supporting the teaching of foreign languages and financing student exchanges, they can help people in the region accomplish their own goals as spelled out in the "Arab Human Development Report."
There are many strands to an effective long-term strategy to promote conditions for stability and broader political participation in the Arab world. This is America's declared goal. But getting there requires American policies that are consistent with the comprehensive approach that democratic transformation requires.
Joseph S. Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, is professor of government at Harvard University. This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate