Bush Administration's Middle East Policies Get Mixed Review from Experts

March 2, 2006
Amb. Richard Schifter participated in the J.B. Moore Society symposium panel assessing the Bush administration's Mideast policies.

Despite the recent democratic elections in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, the Bush administration has been only somewhat effective in carrying out its Middle East policies, according to a group of panelists who spoke at the annual international law symposium sponsored by the J.B. Moore Society of International Law Feb. 24.

The panel included U.Va. Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs William B. Quandt; Ambassador Richard Schifter, chair of the American Jewish International Relations Institute; Joseph Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch; and Maj. Sean Watts, a professor in the JAG School's International and Operational Law Department.

"We must go beyond a focus simply on generic elections, that elections are what it's all about and that any form of elections is the answer," said U.Va. law professor John Norton Moore, who moderated the event. "[Democracy is] an idea that, once unleashed on the world, is enormously powerful. We don't need to have the notion that this is something that has to be implemented through the use of force."

Moore's opening remarks contextualized the current interplay between implementing democracy and the complexities of doing so in the Middle East. In the 1990s, Moore explained, a series of correlations between democracies and the issues and concerns held dear by the global community, developed by numerous thinkers, writers and Nobel Prize winners, led to the idea that "democratic peace" provided the fuel for a healthy position in the world.

"Democratic peace showed that democracies fought each other in major war, if at all, at an extremely low rate," said Moore. "We saw that democracies were far lower on the scale of committing serious human rights abuses we saw very important correlations in environmental protection; we saw the correlations on the avoidance of famine in relation to democratic structures and the rule of law and free press."

William Quandt outlined the history of the Bush administration's "broader Middle East initiative."

William Quandt outlined the history of the Bush administration's "broader Middle East initiative," designed during the G8 Summit meeting in November 2003, as one that was immediately controversial and almost doomed to fail from the start.

"Many in the Middle East were suspicious about the avowed purposes at a time when the most obvious signs in American policy in the region were the occupation of Iraq and the open-handed U.S. support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon," he said. "The other G8 members also made it clear by their statements and their behavior that they were all not on exactly the same page with the United States, so this looked pretty much like a unilateral, U.S. initiative at a time when American stock in the region was actually at a fairly low point."

And yet the initiative's core idea of democracy was one that should not be ignored, Quandt added. Many scholars and writers pondered why the Middle East was an area of the world that had yet to feel the influence of democracy and the rule of law; the barrier was less an issue of Islamic culture and more an issue of outside support of authoritarian regimes, the unusually high level of militarization in the region, and also the existence of foreign occupations.

"In short, the region was not short of democratic potential when Bush launched his initiative," said Quandt.

With 9/11, President Bush's view towards the fostering of democracy in the Middle East became the forefront of his policy through the idea that dictatorships were breeding grounds for terrorism and that establishing democracies in place of these dictatorships would help bring about the downfall of terror. "Afghanistan and Iraq were to be the early models of the new order, but there was no reason that the logic of transformation would stop there," said Quandt.

He pointed out fatal mistakes made early on by the administration in its handling of Iraq, such as the dissolution of the Iraqi military and the purging of the Ba'ath party's bureaucracy, affecting more than 10,000 people, including teachers and administrators who only joined the party to support their careers. "Almost overnight this meant that the full task of maintaining security and providing services for the Iraqi people was in our hands; that is, the hands of a U.S. military that did not do nation-building," said Quandt.

"We now have an Iraq that has had elections and a constitutional referendum, but is still very far from being a stable, liberal democracy Iraq, instead of serving as a model for the rest of the region, is looking like something the others hope to avoid."

Ultimately, Quandt stressed that electoral design matters. "On the whole, proportion representation does a much better job of reflecting the underlying spread of opinion and avoids the distorting results that can produce artificial majorities," he said.

Complex policies, including a focus on human rights and the encouragement of other transitional democracies like Turkey, are needed. "We have to avoid having a one-dimensional policy," Quandt said. "The world is a complex place, and we need complex policies."

Ambassador Schifter's remarks focused on the important role of human rights within the context of the larger goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. The U.N. Charter was the first document to spell out the concept of human rights, according to Schifter, and placed such rights in the international sphere.

"In the preceding decades the effect of the United Nations charter had not really been generalized," he said. The United States was the first to deal with this issue more broadly, and in the 1970s Henry Kissinger played an instrumental role in "putting the U.S. on the record with this issue."

Schifter stressed that the ability of the United States to influence the Middle East was limited. At the same time, he noted that there are situations where the United States can be effective, especially in promoting rule of law and in giving such countries a stake on the international stage.

"It seems to me that when you have a base in the population on which you can build, that really makes a great deal of difference," he said. "And it is by and large countries that have had people engaged in the foreign trade with a broader view of the world, who can accomplish far more in terms of building a democracy."

Joseph Stork

For Joseph Stork, the current situation needs to be assessed within the context of the idea that, five years prior to the Bush administration, ideas of democracy and human rights were constantly subordinated to other issues when it came to policy-making.

"While there is very little I would say that the Bush administration has gotten right, I do think this is one that they have gotten right," he said. "We are in a situation where [ideas of democracy and human rights] has become part of the mantra, and this has been very helpful."

Stork gives the Bush administration mild grades in terms of the quality of its efforts. He pointed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's speech before the American University of Cairo (AUC) last June as one of the "high points in terms of identifying not just using the usual bromides about democracy and freedom but actually spelling out what are the things that make up a free electoral process." The administration's decision a few weeks ago not to go ahead with free trade negotiations with Egypt was defined by Stork as "a very positive step in response to the thuggery and violence that conquered the Egyptian parliamentary elections."

Stork noted that the recent Hamas victory in the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections would be another test for the administration's policy. "I think we're going to look back on this, no matter which way things go as a watershed event in the region. And so it behooves us to be very careful how we respond to that."

The Bush administration's policies have been muddled by officials' inconsistent language, Stork said. Following Secretary Rice's speech at the AUC, her tone changed significantly during a speech in Riyadh, becoming, as Stork put it, "noticeably more subdued on very same points."

The administration's philosophy that dictatorships breed terror is a "pretty common-sense statement" in Stork's view, yet one fraught with its own issues. "Addressing only the democratization of these societies is frankly avoiding and silencing discussion about some of the other issues like, what are the U.S. policies in the region that are in fact giving rise to these grievances, not so much the motivation of those particular criminals who may have carried out those attacks," he said.

Ultimately, there is no single model for democracy, Stork said. "That's of course in many ways a virtue and it allows for different societies to develop their own ways of expressing and consolidating and institutionalizing democratic practices," he said. "But there are very specific standards that have to be part of any democratization: dealing with rights of freedom of expression, dealing with rights of freedom of association and assembling. One way in which I feel the administration's policy can be and should be strengthened is by addressing these standards."

But many of the treaties and covenants that value these standards also champion eradicating the same human rights violations, such as torture and unlawful detention, that critics accuse the administration of carrying out in the war on terror, Stork said. "Standards are good, but I think double-standards are poison," said Stork.

Maj. Sean Watts

Maj. Sean Watts described Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom as "not obvious choices on missions in democracy-building." Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan was seen primarily as a self-defense mission that has subsequently turned into a nation-building exercise.

"It's a lot less certain in the case of [Operation] Iraqi Freedom," he said. "What got us there, why we're there, are questions I think that historians will quibble about for a very long time. The fact is that we're stuck with the democracy-building issue at this point whether we like it or not."

The Department of Defense's involvement seems to correspond with democratic advancements in Iraq, according to Watts. "It's interesting to correlate the troop levels with aspects of Iraqi freedom that correlate to democracy building," he said. "If you want to see the peaks and valleys, the peaks of our troop deployment actually coincide with the elections."

Department of Defense directive 3000-05, described by Watts as an "excellent document," illustrates a watershed moment in the department. In essence, the directive called for a change of mission geared more towards support, stability, transition and reconstruction (known as SSTR operations). These operations were placed on par with combat operations and department staff members were encouraged to promote this change through such means as education and mandated interagency cooperation.

"You can't just ride off into the sunset after you've taken Baghdad," said Watts. "We have to stick around and there's a lot more to democracy-building than just ensuring access to the polls."

Watts offered some suggestions for improvement: "It's clear to me that we need to change the legal skill sets to fine-tune what we're doing," he said. "When you try to spread democracy through rule of law, you may not get what you expected," he said, pointing to the recent Palestinian election. "In addition, I think we've got to take on comparative law in a far more serious way than we do today."

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