I had my last ever lecture in Spy School on Friday. It was about US attempts to democratise the Arab world. By an astonishing coincidence, the BBC ran an article on this kind of thing last week: Has the US ditched Mid-East reform?
I have already mentioned the prevalence of authoritarian rule in the Middle East. Part of the picture here is the historic fondness of the USA for friendly Arab dictators or kings. This assisted various shady Arab world leaders in the repression of their people. After 9-11, though, elements within the US administration began to wonder if this strategy had essentially failed – something designed to advance US security is hardly achieved if maniacs take to flying aircraft into New York skyscrapers. So the US regime started talking about how it was vitally important that the Arab world move towards democracy. The use of democratisation as part of the justification for invading Iraq was part of this, but the piling of pressure on US clients was another. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak had long been one of the USA's most reliable allies in the region, but suddenly he found himself being put under real pressure to introduce democratic reforms to his country.
Fortunately for Mubarak, the USA lost interest in Arab democratisation, and the Egyptian regime found itself free to throw civil rights activists and bloggers into jail without any problematic statements from the Americans. The reason for this is simple enough – democracy is a mysterious business, and you can never be sure that the guys you like will win. The Palestinian Authority elections in 2006 were a worrying reminder of what can happen when people are allowed to vote – despite the high education of Palestinians, their extensive links to a worldwide diaspora, and all the money the USA has pumped into the country, the Palestinian ingrates chose to vote for Hamas, the evil Islamist party. After that the US administration decided that actually the friendly dictators and monarchs were not so bad after all, and they have been subjected to only the most token pressures towards democracy.
You could say, therefore, that the clock has turned full circle and the USA is back to letting security concerns dictate its agenda with respect to Middle Eastern regimes. Unfortunately, the pro-democracy interlude has the effect of greatly strengthening the dictators, as they (and their opposition) can now reasonably predict that if the Americans pile on the pressure for democracy then this will simply be a short-lived fad to which they are not really committed. There is also the damage to US credibility – if you start saying that Egypt needs to democratise and then a couple of years later revert to a failed policy of boosting Mubarak then you look like a bit of an idiot, and a hypocritical one at that.