Journal Essay

Democracy, Autocrats and U.S. Policies in the Middle East

Timo Kivimäki

Spring 2012, Volume XIX, Number 1

Prof. Kivimäki is in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, University of Uppsala, Sweden.1

The NATO operation for the protection of civilians in Libya, in support of a democratic uprising, took longer than expected and did not entirely comply with the mandate from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).2 It also cost more lives than anticipated. The operation to topple an authoritarian regime did not respect the sovereignty of Libya, even if one might ponder what the sovereign rights of a polity that does not serve its people are really worth. Compromises in international law on sovereignty and the role of the UNSC in mandating military operations, as well as the costs of the destruction from war, are balanced by the benefits of freedom to the people of Libya and the value of their emancipation from a brutal dictator.

Yet the costs and benefits of democracy enforcement are difficult to measure. Autocratic leaders often exaggerate the value of sovereignty in order to defend themselves against international condemnation. Semi-autocracies, such as China and Russia, sometimes have economic reasons for vetoing a UN mandate for international democracy-enforcement operations, like those in Iraq and Libya. Yet international norms and economic benefits are often no match for the value of democracy. Autocracies kill more of their citizens than all wars combined. Democides — primarily by (communist) dictatorships — killed more than six times as many people as wars during the twentieth century, according to Rudolph Rummel, one of the leading scholars of conflict and democide. In his calculations, Mao Zedong's China and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union were the main contributors to the total of 262 million victims of the twentieth-century democides.3

At the same time, the West tends to hide the human costs of democracy promotion. If we take the low and high estimates from battle-death datasets maintained by Uppsala University4 and the Peace Research Institute in Oslo,5 we can calculate that the Iraq War has contributed to 20-41 percent of battle deaths worldwide since it began on March 20, 2003. For a population of less than 0.5 percent of the world total, this share has been a considerable sacrifice for democracy and freedom and is certainly greater than revealed in official declarations.

Despite the human cost, the benefit in terms of improved quality of the polity varies more than we are led to believe. In 2010, Iraq was coded by the polity data with a positive polity score,6 indicating that for the first time in its history, its governance had more democratic than authoritarian qualities. At the same time, Afghanistan was still coded as a failed state in 2010. The U.S.-led Western support for democracy in South Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s clearly encouraged autocracy rather than democracy.7 These poor results of democracy promotion do not get much publicity in the Western media.

As a consequence of cost problems and meager benefits, the opinions of people subjected to such democracy-enforcement operations often are negative once the dust has settled on the battlefield. The polls measuring the lack of popularity of the military operation by the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" in Iraq demonstrate this.8

Furthermore, motives for the Western fight against tyranny are often (at least partly) mixed with partisan political or economic motives. This, together with the costs of democracy enforcement and questionable results, casts doubt on the net benefit of it all. The West has legitimacy for operations like those in Iraq or Libya only if intrusive Western support results in sufficient emancipation from violent autocracy.

This article will argue that there is no net benefit, and that instead, U.S. support — military and general — tends to strengthen autocracy rather than oppose it. The geographic focus of my analysis is the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. I have previously shown in static analysis of support and polities that intrusive U.S. support (aimed at interfering in the domestic power balance of countries) facilitates, rather than opposes, violent autocracy. I shall here review the great changes in polities and complement the static analysis with an analysis of the dynamism of U.S. facilitation. In this way, in addition to lending support to the earlier conclusions based on static analysis, the present article goes deeper into the processes and dynamic reasons for decisions to support democratic and autocratic tendencies. The main conclusion of this examination supports the static analysis: the United States has punished democratization more than rewarded it, and rewarded and facilitated autocratic development more than opposed it. Thus, President Barack Obama's concern about the legitimacy of yet another military operation for democracy before lending his support to the NATO operation in Libya was warranted. The U.S. historical record offers no justification for exceeding the UNSC mandate or for undermining the sovereignty of the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

Previous Research: Static Support

Previous analyses9 of the correlations between polities (again measured by using Polity IV data) of the targets of U.S. support and opposition and U.S. military and general support and opposition from 1946 to 2010 reveal that there is a positive association between U.S. support and autocracy. This association was still very strong throughout the presidency of George W. Bush, but it had started fading away during the Barack Obama presidency, though it is still early days for such an analysis. Since the relations of support are long term and polities change slowly (and thus observations over years are not independent of each other), it is not possible to measure the significance of this association in a satisfactory manner. But previous research has measured the average polity scores of those Middle Eastern countries that the United States has supported, those that the United States has been neutral towards, and those that the United States has opposed. The results can be seen in Table 1.10

Table 1: Democracy, Authoritarianism and U.S. Support in the Middle East, 1946–2010

 

Autocracy Level

U.S. Opposes

6.41

U.S. Neutral

6.38

U.S. Supports

6.94

A closer study of polity profiles reveals that the United States has generally supported countries that are stable. This is understandable, considering U.S. oil interests in the Middle East. However, many of the regimes demonized in the Western media are not nearly as autocratic as are some of the most stable U.S. allies. In fact, even the much-condemned Iranian and Sudanese governments are less autocratic than the average Muslim regime supported by Washington. The two most autocratic regimes that the United States ever resisted in the Middle East and North Africa were Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the socialist, pro-Soviet regime of Algeria of the mid-1960s. These regimes had autocracy scores of 9 in the polity data, while the United States supported seven regimes with autocracy scores of 10 (the highest possible), for a total of 176 country-years. All of the most autocratic U.S.-supported countries were major oil producers.

At the same time, the United States has supported countries with more competitive recruitment of top executives and more competitive political participation. While this meshes with the public profile of the United States as a supporter of democracy, typical regimes supported by the United States in the Middle East tend to restrict the political participation of some groups (those opposing U.S. interests). Thus, even if political participation was competitive, it was also restricted.

U.S. REACTIONS

While analysis of the links between support and a target country's polity reveals general patterns, we need to look at the junctures of change in order to understand the path-dependent dynamics of support for democracy and autocracy in U.S. policies. The question is, what happens to U.S. support when there is a major change in the political system of a Middle Eastern or North African country? Does the United States reward democratic transitions and punish autocratic moves, as it is supposed to?

A crude analysis of U.S. use of carrots and sticks reveals clearly how much American policy is based on negative rather than positive sanctions as a reaction to positive and negative changes. I shall start the examination by listing the greatest year-to-year changes in the democratic credentials of Muslim regimes of the Middle East and North Africa by looking at polity scores (scores produced by subtracting the autocracy score from the democracy score) after 1946 or the independence of the nation. The results can be seen in Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2: Greatest Changes towards Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa

Country

Year

Sudan

1986

Sudan

1965

Syria

1954

Turkey

1983

Turkey

1973

Iran

1997

Syria

1950

Algeria

1989

Jordan

1951

Algeria

2004

Turkey

1961

Jordan

1989

Algeria

1995

Bahrain

1973

Jordan

1952


Table 3: Greatest Changes towards Autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa

Country

Year

Sudan

1958

Sudan

1989

Turkey

1980

Syria

1949

Iran

1955 (Data for 1953-4 missing.)

Turkey

1971

Iran

2004

Syria

1951

Egypt

1952

Jordan

1957

Sudan

1971

Syria

1958

Morocco

1965

Algeria

1992

Syria

1963

The only case where an improvement in the democratic situation could be claimed to have elicited a major increase in U.S. support for the regime is Bahrain in 1973. Yet the democratic reforms of 1973 did not spark new support; rather, ongoing support increased.

In Sudan (1986) and twice in Syria (1950 and 1954), however, democratic reforms were met with increasing American hostility. In Sudan, this was related to the country's reluctance to take tougher measures against terrorism, while in Syria, the negative U.S. reaction was part of a global power play and Syria's relations with the Soviet Union. Jordan's democratization just before Kuwait came under threat from Iraq was met with cooling ties with the United States, due to Jordan's resistance to U.S. military manipulation of Middle Eastern affairs against the Iraqi aggressor. It is clear that occasional U.S. "punishment" of democratizing nations is not directed to democratization itself. The question is not about U.S. hostility towards democracy, but about an American foreign policy that prioritizes strategic and economic interests. However, sometimes these economic and strategic concerns have been related to the pressures of democratization. Militant resistance against global U.S. enemies is not always popular in the Middle East, and democratization has led to anti-Americanism. Syria's progress in 1950 is a case in point. A U.S.-backed coup on April 11, 1949, brought to power an anti-Soviet military leader, Husni al-Zaim, who was assumed to be sufficiently tough and suppressive on communism. Progress in democratization in 1950 was related to the rapidly changing and complex situation after the removal of this pro-U.S. leader. Yet, despite democratic progress, the U.S. reaction to the dismissal was naturally negative. U.S. support of Syria declined as a consequence of the increase in the power of the anti-American popular movement. U.S. reaction to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which after some turbulence did bring about some democratic progress, is another excellent example of the difficulties of combining ideological, strategic and economic priorities.

Turning from progress to democratic relapse, we can see much more action on the American side. Here, the United States has reacted negatively in at least three cases. In two of these, increased authoritarianism was introduced by socialist or pro-Soviet orientations (Egypt in 1952 and Syria in 1963). In the third, democracy suffered because of the pressures of radical, anti-American Islamism (the National Islamic Front government's takeover in Sudan in 1989). Each of these cases was widely used by U.S. foreign-policy ideologues for the promotion of the legitimacy of U.S. policy and the association of power-political interests with support of democracy.

However, the association has not been consistent in cases where democracy has collapsed and autocracy gained strength. At least twice, authoritarianism was boosted by a U.S.-backed coup. In Iran, the CIA helped bring to power Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and oust a democratically elected government that had allowed the parliament to nationalize the country's oil assets. While this mostly threatened the economic interests of the United Kingdom (and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company), it exemplified the difficulty of supporting democracy when popular opinion runs against Western oil interests. However, the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, U.S. support for an authoritarian ruler until 1979, and U.S. hostility after the ousting of the shah brought democratic progress to the country also constituted, to a large extent, a case of the United States defending its strategic interests. The shah was a strong supporter of the anti-Soviet power balance in the Middle East, while popular sentiments in this strategically located country had been much less predictable. In the post-Cold War period, the main objections to Iranian policies were related to "its support for terrorism abroad; its assistance to groups violently opposed to the Middle East peace process; and its effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability."11 Yet consistently, during and after the Cold War, U.S. statements mention America's commitment to democracy and opposition to repression as the first rationale of U.S. Iran policies. In a speech by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000, the first objection to the regime of the day was "the Iranian Government's repression at home." Yet, the only Iranian government that the United States ever supported (that of the shah) had an autocracy score of 10. The average autocracy score of (post-Pahlavi) governments that the United States opposed was 4.7. In 2002, when the United States declared Iran one of the tyrannies of the Axis of Evil, Iran's democracy score was 4 and its autocracy score 1. The country was, after Turkey, the most democratic and least autocratic country in the Middle East.

The U.S.-backed coup of Husni al-Zaim in Syria in 1949 constituted a drastic democracy relapse. It was rewarded by the United States for strategic reasons. Syria was a prize that the two Cold War antagonists competed for; thus, the U.S. meddling in Syria's domestic affairs was part of global power politics. Despite the fact that Syria moved closer to autocracy in 1949, the contribution of U.S. interference to Syria's domestic affairs and the country's move to authoritarianism is less clear than in the case of Iran. Some historians claim that U.S. backing set a trend in Syria,12 which then experienced 10 coups in the next two decades. Since the Syrian coup was not the only one even in 1949, and since the U.S.-sponsored ruler was not as loyal to the United States as the shah, the contradiction between U.S. interests and human security in Syria was ill defined. There was extensive meddling in Syria's domestic affairs by many other countries, including the Soviet Union and several regional powers, not least Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

Authoritarianism has also increased in the context of stable U.S. support. In 1965, the United States supported King Hassan II of Morocco, who had put in train some expansion of popular participation but had declared a state of emergency and seized all legislative and executive powers. This move gained U.S. support due to the challenge the king had experienced from radical student movements. Continuing democratic reform might have risked a political turn towards socialism and a geopolitical turn towards the Soviet Union.13 Yet, the expansion of U.S. support only continued after the autocratic move. The U.S. Peace Corps started operating in Morocco in 1963, two years after the progressive constitutional reform and the introduction of greater popular participation.

A more controversial case of tacit backing of an autocratic move was the case of Algeria after 1991. The United States continued to support the government after the Algerian military's cancellation of the second round of legislative elections after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won over 80 percent of the seats and almost 50 percent of the votes in the first round. The military coup that ended a promising democratic reform was not masterminded by the United States, but the prospect of an Islamist party winning enough seats to change the constitution and convert Algeria into an Islamic state prompted Washington to support the regime and its fight against what it called Islamic terrorism. Despite the fact that the FIS had won the support of the people, the United States accepted the coup and collaborated with the new military government, particularly to root out Islamic terrorism. Yet, the FIS never entered the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

A similar case was the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Since the United States lists it as a "terrorist" organization, the logic of America's global war on terror required that the United States oppose Palestine, while supporting Israeli efforts to undermine the influence of Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Due to conflict between the winner and loser (Fatah) of the election, Hamas took control of Gaza, while leaving Fatah in control of the West Bank. This created a situation in which the United States (and most other Western powers, except for Switzerland, Norway and Turkey) could recognize the rule of the loser in the elections in the West Bank while being legally committed to reject the rule of the democratically elected government in Gaza.14

Jordan's democratic relapse in 1957 was the beginning of that country's extensive aid relationship with the United States. Washington did not intentionally reward Jordan for its autocratic move. Instead, its support was intended to strengthen the royal government against Arab socialist and anti-royalist nationalist forces as the United Kingdom withdrew from the country. This growing U.S. support was partly motivated by American geopolitical interests; the United States needed to fill the vacuum left by the UK withdrawal. At the same time, the interest of maintaining political stability in a friendly country must have played an important role in U.S. considerations.15

PATTERNS AND IMPLICATIONS

The analysis of U.S. reaction to changes in regimes presents a similar picture as the static analysis on the gravity of the exceptions in the U.S. effort to promote democracy and good governance.

The primary conclusion of this study is that power-political and global missions, regardless of how they are rhetorically associated with the promotion of human security, do not in practice prevent autocracy in the Middle East. They are realistic missions that contradict the idealistic claim that the mission supports better governance and human security. In general,

• The United States has punished more often than rewarded radical changes towards greater democracy and less autocracy.
• The United States has rewarded more often than punished radical changes towards less democracy and greater autocracy.

The comparative data on incidents of U.S. support and opposition bolster the conclusion that U.S. policy has aimed more at damaging than serving the principles that legitimize intrusive U.S. foreign-policy approaches in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. The United States has not been a force for human security in the area.

If we look at the ousting of the democratically elected government in Iran in 1953, it is clear that the need for energy affects U.S. policies. Since oil exploration requires a huge investment before producing any profits, and since the assets of the investors are fixed after the initial investment and cannot be transferred to another state, the investors demand regulations that enable continuation of the business. According to Hirschman,16 this creates a situation where the investor is left with a strategy of trying to influence the host country; leaving the country is not an option. If the investment is crucial to the national interest, the logic of power forces the country of the investor into strategies aimed at controlling the polity of the host country, in order to protect strategically important investments.17 The strong support of the United States for friendly dictators, the American preference for controlled CEO recruitment in host countries, its support for the durability of the polities in oil countries, and the few episodes of U.S. resistance to democratic governments that want to nationalize oil assets (most notably Iran in 1953) testify to this logic of fixed assets.

The dramatic U.S. moves against the popular will of Middle Eastern Muslim countries are also sometimes caused by strategic interests. The U.S. support of King Hassan II in Morocco in 1965 during autocratic moves against student protests clearly exemplifies a situation where the United States had to put strategic interests above support for democratic aspirations. Later, the war on terror put the United States in the same situation in Algeria at the beginning of the 1990s and in Palestine in 2006.

A lesser, but still important, intervening interest that explains America's occasional support of repression is U.S. support for the power, security and welfare of Israel. Whether this support is due to the Holocaust in Europe, which partly legitimized U.S. leadership in the world,18 or to the extensive domestic power of the American Jewish community,19 or to something else, is not possible to conclude on the basis of this study.

In sum, it seems that the United States has compromised its preference for democracy and supported autocratic repression (and sometimes autocratic coups) when the popular will has opposed Washington on:

• Energy policies (Iran 1951–52)
• Global missions against communism (South Yemen 1969) or Islamic terrorism (Iran 1997–2008, Sudan 2002–08)
• Support for Israel (Sudan 1967–68)

The public policy of support for democracy has, indeed, been mixed with partisan economic and power-political interests.

 

1 I am grateful for comments and language editing to this text by Leena Höskuldsson and Jonathan Price, and for the financing of this research by a grant from the Finnish Foreign Ministry. Views presented in the article are not necessarily shared by the above mentioned.

2 The UNSC mandate in Libya gave the international community the right to protect civilians. The original idea was to offer "the coalition of the willing" permission to implement a no-fly zone in areas where government troops used the air force against the democratic rebels. However, the mandate was used by NATO for the facilitation of a regime change. Opposition of China and Russia, two permanent UNSC members with veto rights, to the NATO interpretation of the mandate suggests that the mandate for the operation of regime change did not really come from the UNSC.

3 Rudolph Rummel, Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder in the Twentieth Century (Transaction Publishers, 1994). See http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/20th.htm for an updated estimate of the amount put forth originally by Rummel.

4 Ralph Sundberg, "Collective Violence 2002-2007: Global and Regional Trends," in States in Armed Conflict 2007, eds. Lotta Harbom and Ralph Sundberg (Uppsala: Universitetstryckeriet, 2008).

5 Bethany Lacina, The PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset, 1946–2008, Version 3.0, (2009).

6 Harry Eckstein, Patterns of Authority: A Structural Basis for Political Inquiry (John Wiley & Sons, 1975), available at http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm.

7 This last claim is meant to refer to the fact that South Vietnam had a negative polity score (governance was more autocratic than democratic), and this score deteriorated during the country's tutelage by the United States.

8 "Public Opinion Survey in Iraq. Security & Political Situation," Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies (ICRSS), November 2006, http://www.gulfinthemedia.com/files/article_en/271345.pdf?PHPSESSID=b7f99ff78f182802bbccbfc62e993774.

9 Timo Kivimäki, "Autocracy and U.S. Support for Regimes in the Middle East and North Africa," Democratization, 2012 (forthcoming).

10 Ibid.

11 Madeleine K. Albright, "American-Iranian Relations," Remarks of the Secretary of State, American-Iranian Council, Washington D.C., March 17, 2000, http://www.fas.org/news/iran/2000/000317.htm.

12 James Gelvin, "Syria: Coup Proof?" History Today 60, no. 18 (2011), http://www.historytoday.com/james-gelvin/syria-coup-proof.

13 Stephen Hughes, Morocco under King Hassan (England: Ithaca Press, 2001).

14 P.L. 111-117, The Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2010, Limitation on Assistance for the Palestinian Authority, sec. 7040(b).

15 Helen Chapin Metz, Jordan: A Country Study (GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989).

16 Albert O. Hirschmann, Exit Voice, and Loyalty (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

17 Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and Robert O. Keohane, Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (Little, Brown, 1977). See also Joseph S. Nye Jr., "Independence and Interdependence," Foreign Policy, no. 22 (1976): 129-161.

18 David MacDonald, Thinking History, Fighting Evil: Neoconservatives and the Perils of Historical Analogy in American Politics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

19 John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," Middle East Policy 13, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 64-73.