Part 1. Is democracy in the Middle East a good idea? Reza Aslan thinks the region needs more, not less. Peter Beinart says the US doesn’t exactly have much leverage in the matter.
Part 2. Are democratic elections the answer? Peter believes they often lead to chaos, but Reza counters that even radical groups have the potential to be moderate.
Part 3. Can George Mitchell really make a difference as Middle East envoy? Peter isn’t convinced anyone can mediate successfully but Reza thinks the lessons of Northern Ireland offer hope.
Aslan vs. Beinart: A Daily Beast Debate Transcript
As war rages in the Middle East, Reza Aslan and Peter Beinart debate the future of democracy in the region.
Reza Aslan thinks the Middle East needs more democracy, not less. Peter Beinart thinks that democracies can lead to illiberal groups taking control. Watch Beinart and Aslan go head-to-head on the Bush Doctrine.
Reza Aslan: One of the things that’s going to be absolutely key to Obama’s focus on the Middle East, is that what we need now—and what the war in Gaza, and the conflict in Lebanon, and the issues taking place in Iraq indicate—is not that democracy-promotion was a disaster, but that we haven’t gone far enough. In other words, what we need is more democracy in the region, not less. This is a position that I know a lot of liberals have a hard time with. What do you think about this? Is the idea of promoting democracy, is that over and done with now, or are we going to see an even greater emphasis on this?
Peter Beinart: Well I guess the first thing is, is that you’re not implying this—but some of Bush’s supporters do—the idea of democracy-promotion didn’t begin with George W. Bush. Every American president speaks in lofty terms. Clinton had this idea of democratic enlargement as their central doctrine (the speech Anthony Lake made early in the administration). So Bush didn’t invent this idea. It’s true, he put more emphasis on it in the Middle East than past administrations have, but all presidents are inclined to believe that American values and interests are better served when countries have political systems that are more like us.
For me, at least, the question is what do we mean by democracy as the end state we are trying to get to, and what are the mechanisms we’re trying to get there. This has been discussed ad nauseum, but elections in themselves can lead to quite illiberal movements taking power. So you can have democracies that doesn’t have much respect for the rule of law, or minority rights, or checks on executive authority.
And it seems to me those are the kind very difficult set of questions one has to deal with, plus one also has to deal with the fact that, like it or not, America has an interest in the Middle East, and that we rely on these authoritarian governments to help us achieve these interests. One of them is our need for oil—that’s not going to change any time soon. Another is to try to have some modicum of calm between Israel and its neighbors. We are in a very weak position, it seems to me, vis-à-vis the big-dog allies we have like Egypt and Saudi Arabia right now, so I’m not sure what leverage we have to basically get them to move toward democracy in the short term.
Peter Beinart thinks that democratic elections can lead to chaos. Reza Aslan thinks that radical groups have the potential to be moderate.
Reza Aslan: You know there have been a lot of warnings about how allowing elections in this region will allow these antidemocractic groups to come into power, who will then use their power to basically do away with democracy.
Not once has this proven to be even remotely the case. Quite the contrary. In almost every situation: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and for that matter, with regard to Fatah, in the Palestinian territories, when these organizations have had an opportunity to flex their political muscles, they have always, without exception, moderated their radical tendencies, and I think the same could happen with a group like Hamas.
Peter Beinart: That’s interesting. Just on the democracy point, I do think it is important to remember that there is another model. The other alternative scenario is that countries have democratic elections, they have weak, chaotic democratic governments, and those governments repeatedly fall to authoritarian leaders who are at first quite popular. That’s what you see at first [in countries] like Pakistan and Nigera, so I just wanted to put that on the table as a slightly more troubling alternative scenario.
Aslan and Beinart react to George Mitchell’s recent appointment as Middle East envoy. Is the “75-year-old, retired, prostate cancer survivor” going help achieve peace in Gaza? And can he make “completely irrelevant?”
Reza Aslan: Let’s switch gears for a second here and talk George Mitchell. As you know, of course, he’s being tapped for the worst job in Washington, which is to figure out some way to take care of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are basically two ways to look at this appointment. One, high-profile, proven diplomat and negotiator who is very familiar with the region—of course the Mitchell report about the al-Aqsa intifada, was, I think, a brilliant document, very even-handed, very fair-minded. The other way, and I’ve heard this from Washington insiders just as much is that yeah, you send a 75-year-old, retired prostate-cancer survivor to Jerusalem as window-dressing, so that Obama can look like he’s doing something, when in fact, his entire focus is going to be on the economy. What do you think?
Peter Beinart: It seems to me he’s got a very good bio, a very good resume, but the reality is, as you said, the life of these negotiators is always one of utility, and ultimately, it seems to me, what will matter more will be the outcome of the Israeli elections. Whether you have a government in Israel of the right, that is, basically, not only uninterested in any kinds of dealing with Hamas, but is essentially uninterested in even trying to strengthen Fatah, or whether you get the emergence in Israel of some kind of centrist government that would be open in trying to build up Mahmoud Abbas and maybe even could become open to supporting some kind of Palestinian unity government. If it’s Netanyahu and a bunch of ultra-Orthodox and Setmar parties, I just don’t think it really matters who the US mediator is.
Reza Aslan: I think that’s a very good point. The one thing that I will say is that if it is a Netanyahu Likud government that in some strange way provides a little bit more cover for Obama to be as tough as he needs to be with Israel in order to get something done, in a way, this allows him—much in the same way that Clinton treated Netanyahu—to kind of lay down the law, if you will.
The only other thing that I’ll say about George Mitchell, is that there is something to be said about the example of the Northern Ireland Accords, the Good Friday Accords, and that is that Mitchell was smart enough to recognize is that you cannot forcefully disarm the IRA. All you can do is allow them to become irrelevant. And hopefully that lesson will be applied to Hamas, because this is something that all sides are going to have to learn. Is that you cannot beat Hamas into submission. All you can do is make them completely irrelevant.
Reza Aslan is a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, Middle East analyst for CBS News, and a featured blogger for Anderson Cooper 360 . He wrote The New York Times bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Aslan is co-founder and creative director of BoomGen Studios as well as the editorial executive of Mecca.com.
Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.