October 20, 2005


Can Democracy Stop Terrorism? (F. Gregory Gause III, September/October 2005, Foreign Affairs)

The United States is engaged in what President George W. Bush has called a "generational challenge" to instill democracy in the Arab world. The Bush administration and its defenders contend that this push for Arab democracy will not only spread American values but also improve U.S. security. As democracy grows in the Arab world, the thinking goes, the region will stop generating anti-American terrorism. Promoting democracy in the Middle East is therefore not merely consistent with U.S. security goals; it is necessary to achieve them.

But this begs a fundamental question: Is it true that the more democratic a country becomes, the less likely it is to produce terrorists and terrorist groups? In other words, is the security rationale for promoting democracy in the Arab world based on a sound premise? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be no. Although what is known about terrorism is admittedly incomplete, the data available do not show a strong relationship between democracy and an absence of or a reduction in terrorism. Terrorism appears to stem from factors much more specific than regime type. Nor is it likely that democratization would end the current campaign against the United States. Al Qaeda and like-minded groups are not fighting for democracy in the Muslim world; they are fighting to impose their vision of an Islamic state. Nor is there any evidence that democracy in the Arab world would "drain the swamp," eliminating soft support for terrorist organizations among the Arab public and reducing the number of potential recruits for them.

Even if democracy were achieved in the Middle East, what kind of governments would it produce? Would they cooperate with the United States on important policy objectives besides curbing terrorism, such as advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process, maintaining security in the Persian Gulf, and ensuring steady supplies of oil? No one can predict the course a new democracy will take, but based on public opinion surveys and recent elections in the Arab world, the advent of democracy there seems likely to produce new Islamist governments that would be much less willing to cooperate with the United States than are the current authoritarian rulers.

The answers to these questions should give Washington pause. The Bush administration's democracy initiative can be defended as an effort to spread American democratic values at any cost, or as a long-term gamble that even if Islamists do come to power, the realities of governance will moderate them or the public will grow disillusioned with them. The emphasis on electoral democracy will not, however, serve immediate U.S. interests either in the war on terrorism or in other important Middle East policies.

It is thus time to rethink the U.S. emphasis on democracy promotion in the Arab world. Rather than push for quick elections, the United States should instead focus its energy on encouraging the development of secular, nationalist, and liberal political organizations that could compete on an equal footing with Islamist parties. [...]

Comparing India, the world's most populous democracy, and China, the world's most populous authoritarian state, highlights the difficulty of assuming that democracy can solve the terrorism problem. For 2000-2003, the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report indicates 203 international terrorist attacks in India and none in China. A list of terrorist incidents between 1976 and 2004, compiled by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, shows more than 400 in India and only 18 in China. Even if China underreports such incidents by a factor of ten, it still endures substantially fewer terrorist attacks than India. If the relationship between authoritarianism and terrorism were as strong as the Bush administration implies, the discrepancy between the number of terrorist incidents in China and the number in India would run the other way.

Ideally every unfree nation would have the kind of leader who wants to develop democracy in his own country and would accept our aiding that development, but the Francos, Pinochets, and Musharaffs of the world aren't all that common. Meanwhile, by Mr. Gause's way of thinking we should have left Saddam in power and funded the opposition which he routinely murdered--hardly a productive tactic. And the idea that Chinese authoritarianism is preferable to a somewhat more violent Indian democracy is repellant.

Democracy alone may offer no guarantee that terrorism will diminish -- at least not in the short term -- but it does offer the greatest likelihood that a decent society will develop, one the citizenry can take pride in, and that does appear to be a key factor, Mix of nationalism, zealotry and humiliation drives rising suicide attacks (STEVEN GUTKIN, 9/29/05, AP)

A bomb strapped to his abdomen, Rafat Moqadi walked into a Tel Aviv restaurant and saw a woman dining with her two little girls.

"Seeing that, I decided not to carry out the operation. I couldn't do it," he said. Yet, Moqadi said he longed for what he believes awaits a suicide bomber in the hereafter: God's reward and a special place in heaven for martyrs.

"He has a life in paradise," he said Thursday. "He doesn't die."

A rare jailhouse interview with the would-be suicide bomber revealed a common thread running through the rising worldwide phenomenon: Most attackers are driven not by poverty or ignorance, but by a lethal mix of nationalism, zealotry and humiliation.

As the pace of attacks increases in the Middle East and beyond, a surprising profile is emerging of those willing to take their own lives. Many are young, middle class and educated.

Nearly four-fifths of all suicide attacks over the past 35 years have occurred since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes in the U.S., according to the RAND Center for Terrorism Risk Management. And 80 per cent of those have been carried out by radical Islamic groups, said the centre's director, Bruce Hoffman.

But religion is only part of the picture. Moqadi said that wasn't his motivation.

"The main reason was to resist the (Israeli) occupation, to create a balance of power with the Israeli army," he said.

"At the moment they put the (explosives) belt on me there were a few seconds of doubt," he said.

"But after that I felt strength. I felt stronger than the whole state of Israel. It was a good feeling."

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2005 11:53 PM

"As the pace of attacks increases in the Middle East and beyond, a surprising profile is emerging of those willing to take their own lives. Many are young, middle class and educated."

In 2005, you have to try really, really hard to be so ignorant as to be surprised by this.

Posted by: b at October 21, 2005 11:35 AM

uh oh, you said the magic word Pinochet. They'll be out in force now.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 21, 2005 12:20 PM

The error in describing terrorist acts in dictatorships is that the terrorists are in power and terrorism is simply what the secret police do so its never counted in official figures.

The international community needs to achieve consensus on a lot of issues. One is whether it is appropriate for a democracy to allow anti-democratic forces seize power via elections. In other words, is it better to be Algeria in '92 or the Weimar Republic in '32?

One important reason the Islamists have thrived is that dictators like Nasser/Sadat/Mubarak proscribed the legitimate democratic opposition, but let Islamist organizations survive because of their religious nature. Without a safety valve, malcontents only have one place to go - and recruits end up adopting the worldview of the leaders.

The goal then is to keep the fanatics in check while allowing enough of a true democratic opposition so that they become credible enough to attract back the frustrated and they abandon support of the fanatics.

It is a long game, and much can go wrong. Perhaps disastrously so. It is not inevitable though. The old system has proven bankrupt and needs replacement.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 21, 2005 1:09 PM

One advantage of having violence engaged in by a democratic state is that others can hold such state accountable. Now, with terrorists not identified with a particular state, it is hard to justify retaliation against a state for what otherwise would be regarded as acts of war.

Posted by: George at October 21, 2005 2:40 PM