Global Policy Forum

Does Increasing Democracy Undercut Terrorists?


By Joseph S. Nye Jr.*

Christian Science Monitor
September 22, 2005

According to President Bush, one of the reasons he went to war in Iraq was to transform the Middle East through democracy. The roots of terrorism in the Middle East were seen as growing out of the undemocratic nature of the regimes in the region. Removing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and creating democracy in Iraq would address the root causes of terrorism.

Does increasing democracy diminish terrorism? Some analysts are skeptical. Violent extremists exist in nearly all societies. After all, the terrorist attacks in London were carried out by British citizens in one of the world's oldest democracies. And Timothy McVeigh, an American citizen, carried out the Oklahoma City bombing. Moreover, skeptics argue that even if democracy might reduce terrorist recruitment, the Iraq war was the wrong means to promote democracy, and may have increased the recruitment of new terrorists. To be fair, it is still too early to give a definitive answer to these questions. A historical assessment of the Iraq war and its effects on the Middle East will take a decade or more. The January Iraq election was a positive step for the region.

As Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader said, "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq." Columnist David Brooks observed, "If there is one soft power gift that America does possess, it is the tendency to imagine new worlds." With the invasion of Iraq and his increased rhetoric of democracy, Mr. Bush transformed the status quo. In the past six months, there have been national elections in Lebanon and local elections in Saudi Arabia. Egypt has amended its constitution to allow its presidential election to be contested. Moderate steps have been taken in Bahrain, Oman, and Morocco. Some of these things would have occurred without the Iraq war; some might not have.

Democracy, however, requires the tolerance of minorities and individual rights, as well as the development of effective institutions for the resolution of political conflicts in divided societies. It is much more than just elections. That is why the current dispute over the Iraqi constitution is so important. Unless a compromise is achieved and the Sunni minority is conciliated, another set of elections will not solve the problem.

Thus far, the invasion of Iraq has created an insurgency and incipient civil war. It will require heroic political actions to produce democracy out of this situation.

The main lesson to be learned is that while the development of democracy can be aided from outside, it cannot easily be imposed by force. Germany and Japan became democratic after American occupation, but only after their total defeat in a world war, and a seven-year occupation. There was no insurgency. Moreover, Germany and Japan were relatively homogeneous societies without the deep communal divisions that mark Iraq. US instruments also included the soft power of the Marshall Plan. It is hard to see such conditions repeated in today's world. The Bush administration may be correct that the risks of promoting democracy are less than the risks of allowing the status quo of authoritarian regimes to persist indefinitely. But the means matter as much as the ends. The development of civil societies, economic growth, and openness to the world are crucial. In addition, it is important to address conflicts like the Israel-Palestine issue that create a sense of indignity in the region.

Democracy will not convert the current crop of extremist jihadis to peaceful change, and too rapid a transition may destabilize governments and enhance the extremists' opportunities to wreak havoc. But over time, the slow, steady progress of democratization and freedom provides a sense of hope for the moderates. We need to create a narrative about a better future that undercuts the message of hate and violence promoted by the extremists.

But we have to learn to do it with our soft or attractive power. In the long run, a democratic future will help to remove some of the sources of rage. But if we choose inappropriate means in the short run, we may never get to that long run.

About the Author: Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author most recently of 'The Power Game: A Washington Novel.'

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