Arabs' message to the US: leave the 'democracy' to us

After the way the US has behaved, nobody in the Arab world really wants to hear American preaching about democracy.

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For the past three decades, democracy promotion has been a staple, though oftentimes understated, arm of overall US foreign policy. President Jimmy Carter advocated this idea in the late 1970s. Ronald Reagan advanced it as a weapon in the Cold War. And presidents since then have embraced democracy promotion initiatives, though none with the ideological fervour of George W Bush.

Of late, this agenda has become a topic of heated debate in the US, and abroad. Some of these programmes are under assault in Arab countries, while in Washington, Bush-era critics of the Obama administration are attacking the president, saying that he hasn't done enough to promote democracy in the Arab World, nor has he acted to defend US democracy efforts abroad.

Some of these Bush administration officials were on hand for a conference on democracy promotion at Kenyon College in Ohio this past week, making their case. I was a participant at the event.

The advocates of democracy promotion advance a number of arguments to make their case. "It's about being true to our values," some say. "It's in our interests." "It is our moral obligation to improve the human condition." All of these arguments resonate with American audiences who reflexively respond to any mention of "our ideals" and appeals to American exceptionalism.

But as vigorous and at times passionate as this entire US conversation might be, it ignores one fundamental question that must be addressed at the outset: "Should America even be involved in democracy promotion in the Arab World?"

In my remarks to the Kenyon College event, I provided a contrarian view that said, quite simply, "No."

I have a number of reasons for taking this stance. First and foremost, it is because I believe that America is not in the position to be the democracy promoter it fashions itself to be. Americans fail to recognise the damage that has been done to "brand America". While many Americans still want to see themselves as "the shining city on the hill", they simply do not understand that is not how most Arabs see them.

Two disastrous and bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the blind eye the US government has shown to Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and life; Guantanamo Bay and the horrors of Abu Ghraib; torture, rendition, and "black sites"; and the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in America all have taken a toll on Americans' credibility as advocates for democracy and human rights.

Our polling across the Arab World shows that not only has America's favourable rating hit bottom, but when asked to name "the biggest threat to peace and security in the region", more often than not, the US is named.

As our polling makes clear, what most Arabs want from America is not democracy, but for Washington to play a role in pressuring Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands. Additionally, many Arabs believe that US investment can help create employment and build capacity in their countries.

And despite the fact that in a number of Arab countries reform and democracy concerns have emerged in the top tier of political priorities, in no case do Arabs indicate that they want American help in advancing these concerns. This they see as an unwanted intrusion into their domestic affairs.

There are, of course, those elements who do seek American support. Some in the Libyan and Syrian opposition have reached out in desperation. There are also some democracy activists who have found it useful to cultivate US patronage. But none of this changes the reality that for strong majorities across the Arab World, American involvement in democracy promotion is not wanted or seen as credible.

The reality is that because the US doesn't listen to Arab voices or respect Arab public opinion, it operates blindly in the region, seeing what it wants to see and hearing only those voices who say what it wants to hear. The US does not understand Arab society or the Arab people's political priorities or their real aspirations. Because of Americans' sense of cultural superiority, the US assumes a "one size fits all" model. Those who want what the US has to offer, the US celebrates as democrats. Those who do not, it decries as backward.

In the end, the US has too little knowledge about the history, culture, and people of the region to play a constructive role in transforming their societies. The American mistake in Afghanistan and Iraq was not just that it believed it could use force to create a democratic order. It was that the US assumed it could play a constructive role in changing countries and peoples about whom it knew so very little in the first place. This was true for America's failed wars, and it is also true for its efforts at democracy promotion.

To his credit, President Barack Obama got it right a year ago when he spoke about America's role in the "Arab Spring". He noted that the US needed to approach these developments with a sense of humility. America hadn't created the Arab Spring (despite the vain attempts by some former Bush administration officials to claim credit), nor could it lead or direct its course. What it could do was help with economic assistance to provide the promise of a better future and by solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The president was right. But this, sadly, is what the US has yet to do.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa