Critics both in the Arab world and at home blame the Obama administration for its failure to pick up Bush's banner of democracy promotion in the Arab world. But the forum failed under the Bush administration -- and not for lack of trying. The problem was not cynicism so much as naivete: Arab states were never going to buy into a process that they recognized would lead to their own demise. The logic of the "liberal autocracy" is to make emblematic gestures toward democracy and citizen engagement -- sham elections, fulsome charters, conferences with tame NGOs -- without ever permitting the real substance. The Forum for the Future, as Hassan says, offers the textbook opportunity for the hollow gesture.
Bush's democracy-promotion agenda depended on a dubious analogy between Eastern Europe and the Middle East (though one that was very dear to Condoleezza Rice, who had witnessed the fall of the Soviet empire while serving on the National Security Council under the first President Bush). Arab citizens, unlike European ones, had no prior experience of democracy or liberal rule -- or of citizenship, for that matter. And Arab regimes, unlike the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, could afford to resist American pressure. That's why the Helsinki paradigm didn't apply. "The Soviet Union was frozen out of the West and looking for some kind of acceptance," observes Thomas Carothers, a democracy-promotion expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The Arab regimes can already go to Davos."
Arab regimes are certainly not more secure than the Soviet Union was: The mass protests cropping up first in one such country, then another, prove that they are growing shakier by the day. But these sclerotic rulers know that because the United States depends on them for regional stability, they can always defy calls for democratic opening. In 2005, Bush demanded that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, hold a free and fair parliamentary election. Mubarak called his bluff by brutally cracking down on the opposition in the course of the voting, and the Bush administration barely made a peep. So why worry?
What, then, is the Obama administration to do in the face of profound public frustration in the Middle East and North Africa? First, it should strengthen its commitment to the slow and unglamorous work of nurturing autonomous institutions in the region; the only real solutions to the woes of the Arab world are long-term ones. The Foundation for the Future, which is now seeking additional funding from Washington, is the perfect vehicle for such support, though of course civil society groups remain at risk from hostile regimes. At the same time, the forum should be put out of its misery. More broadly, the administration should strip away the pretense of buy-in, and whatever legitimacy comes with it, by speaking more candidly about regimes' failure to adopt meaningful reforms.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's address to the forum in Doha on Jan. 13 was a good start. Clinton, who had been notably muted about the political violence in the area, bluntly told her audience that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand;" the status quo was no longer holding; and regimes had to "see civil society not as a threat but as a partner." The speech was well-received by otherwise frustrated activists; Clinton also held a private meeting with eight of them. But the speech was itself an implicit indictment of the forum. Qatar, the host country, has no independent NGOs, not to mention free elections or free press. Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, which played a featured role in the event, is a state body, not an independent organization.
Even democracy-promotion firebrands in the Bush administration accepted the logic of soft-pedaling criticism of Middle East allies. But that logic grows more questionable with every passing day, as the regimes lose their ability to contain the public outrage they have themselves provoked through their evident contempt for their own citizens; fury at official corruption and nepotism has just overthrown President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Yes, the United States still needs many of these states for oil, for regional diplomacy, for investment, and as a counterweight to Iran. Calls for reform will always be constrained by a broader diplomatic calculus. But the time has come -- as a matter not just of commitment to principle but of national security -- to align the United States more clearly and convincingly on the side of those who clamor for change.