Elliott Abrams' Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Police after the Arab Spring (A Council on Foreign Relations Book, Cambridge University Press, 2017) is both a useful assessment of Arab Spring and what came next, and an insightful commentary on the nature of a world power and those who serve it.
Abrams' credentials include service as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights under Ronald Reagan and as a Deputy National Security Adviser in the administration of George W. Bush. His academic credentials appear in this book's 42 pages of notes and bibliography.
The value of Abrams' book is his personal and professional honesty. He reports a convoluted journey on several sides of political issues, and shows his willingness to report the ambivalence/contradictions in the policies of the governments he served.
Ambivalence may be the unspoken theme of this book.
It's not easy, perhaps not even possible being a great power and doing well. The task requires involvement in distant and culturally different nations, likely to both demand and reject US assistance and advice. The problems are not only in understanding foreign cultures and having to filter advice reflecting the self-interests of competing aides. They also involve the many conflicting interests of the US (or any other great power). Domestic and international conundrums require a multifaceted balancing act likely to be beyond the capacity of a President whose personal experiences are limited. Moreover, the size and complexity of the "presidency" include too many individuals and interests to be manageable.
An academic with the title of Professor of Political Science and Public Administration (Emeritus) may be able to identify the major problems, but it would be foolhardy to assume that anyone could solve them.
Abrams does not aspire to govern the world, but even his concern to influence a slice of it taxes the experience and intellectual skill he brings to the job.
He does a credible job of explaining the failure of Arab Spring and the aspirations for democracy in Arab societies. Then his proposals for US actions seem sure to fail on the realities that he has described.
Overall, the book produces an admiration for anyone having to balance realism and idealism, and supports the cynicism appropriate for assessing politics anywhere, anytime.
A reader (perhaps especially one who has spent more than half his life in the Middle East, and worked in several other parts of the First and Third Worlds) is hard pressed to accept Abrams' hopes for democracy alongside what he describes. He distinguishes Arab from other Muslim and additional Third World cultures, and cites Arab countries as being especially resistant to democracy. However, it's not all that clear that the non-Arab countries he sees on the democratic path, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, and several in Latin American, are firmly on that road.
He notes surveys showing countries like Pakistan and Turkey as "partly free," but then describes "post-coup" disappointments that we should expect to be chronically likely other than in those countries which have, arguably, earned the label of stable democracies. (p114)
Abrams labels Chapter 3 as "Will the Islamists Always Win?"
It's a lousy question. Not only is always too long a time for serious analysis, but Abrams himself describes a lack of stability and predictability in both Islamic and Muslim but non-Islamic) political parties and regimes.
He's already answered the question in previous chapters. If Islamists or non-Islamists win in Muslim societies, it may only be the likes of Jimmy Carter who will accept the verdict said to be of an Arab or Muslim electorate, and call it an honest election.
Abrams expresses faith in elections that are monitored by foreign officials and NGOs, but he also provides reasons to expect that those observers will be interested parties, likely to exaggerate their success as monitors in order to increase applause and fundraising.
Well along in his book, Abrams provides what is by then an obvious reason to doubt whatever optimism he engenders.
"This issue – what to do about groups or individuals who use a political opening to achieve power and then subvert democracy – is not an Islamist or an Arab problem alone." (p151)
He wouldn't keep Islamists out of politics in wholesale fashion, but he doesn't trust them. He has a proposal, but by the time we read it we can guess that it would defy implementation.
Abrams' opening chapter is both a useful summary of US efforts in the Middle East from Reagan onward, and provides the reasons to feel that his proposals in the concluding chapter are platitudes of doubtful value."Islamist groups should not be excluded on a wholesale basis from participation in democratic politics unless and until their own conduct has made it evident that they will not abide by the rules of the game and they have refused even to pledge to do so. Placing preconditions on their participation, in the context of establishing rules of the game for all parties, is a reasonable step." (153)
He convinces us that American administrations have limited staying power with respect to the issue of Arab democracy. There are reasons to be pragmatic, and to tolerate or support regimes that are autocratic but stable. Or that ease US relations with other regimes. There is also a tendency of new administrations to deride and depart from the actions of the predecessor, especially if there has been a change in party.
His program (pp 219-40):
- STOP ASSISTING AUTOCRATS TO SLOW OR PREVENT POLITICAL OPENINGS
- TARGET BACKSLIDERS AND PROTECT MINORITIES
- SEEK TO BUILD A CONSTITUENCY FOR DEMOCRACY, AND FOCUS ON THE PROTECTION OF LIBERAL/MODERATE VOICES
- SHIFT EMPHASIS IN FOREIGN AID PROGRAMS FROM CIVIL SOCIETY TO POLITICAL PARTIES, AND MOVE TOWARD THE PRIVATE FOUNDATION MODEL INSTEAD OF USAID PROGRAMMING
- CONDITION ISLAMIST PARTY PARTICIPATION – BUT DO NOT EXCLUDE IT
- CONDITION SECURITY ASSISTANCE ON SECURITY REFORM
- REEVALUATE THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AID TO DICTATORSHIPS
- KEEP FREE ELECTIONS AT THE CENTER OF DEMOCRACY PROMOTION, AND DO NOT ASSUME THE UNITED STATES CAN INSIST ON “GRADUAL” CHANGE
- RECOGNIZE THAT THE FATE OF ARAB DEMOCRACY IS LINKED TO THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN LEADERSHIP
We can attribute the last item to the arrogance of the United States, or an individual who has devoted his career to its government and his ideals.
Abrams deserves praise for his oft repeated theme, not exactly in these words, Never say never (to the prospect of reform). Close to the end, however, his honest pessimism seems to prevail.
"The collapse of the Arab Spring and, with it, widespread hopes for democracy in the Arab world has been depressing to watch. Certainly a massive dose of realism has been added to counteract optimism about the pace and direction of political change."
Abrams does not bring us up to date on Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Qatar, but there is enough in his book to let us judge the latest news for ourselves.