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The Double-edged Sword of Democracy

As the Middle East turns away from dictatorship and towards democracy, it remains unclear how far the United States and the West will go to encourage the people of that region to fight and die for their newfound political rights. Political and military intervention holds both positive and negative outcomes for US policy makers.

Imagine this: Canada goes communist. Then Mexico. Soon protesters form mobs outside the Capitol and the White House demanding the American Politburo take over the government, forcing the current chief executive from power. Armed rebels control Philadelphia and Baltimore. Their forces are moving toward the American capital. A 21st Century Civil War has begun. Should NATO intervene?

This situation sounds far-fetched, but it is an analogy for the democratic revolutions currently sweeping over the Middle East. The major difference between the scenario above and the one being played out in almost every capital in the Middle East is that the American chief executive is limited to two terms, popularly elected by the people, and is bound by a Constitution, which would be the primary instrument of his ouster if he attempted to subvert the cherished individual and human rights of the American people.

But one has to give pause to the idea that the democratic revolutions now underway are wreaking havoc with the status quo. Since the United States has supported many of these dictators and autocrats that have held power from the time of the independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s, American foreign policy makers are caught between an ideological rock and a hard place: they claim to want to see the fulfillment of the democratic “aspirations” of the people of the Middle East, but they also want stable regimes from which economic and military benefits have so often flowed, whether it be oil from Saudi Arabia or the stationing of the Fifth Naval Fleet in Bahrain.

The Obama Administration courted the Arab world when the President made his famous Cairo speech in 2009. The people of that region seem to have answered his call with the toppling of two dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and active anti-government protests in Bahrain and Yemen. Pro-democracy movements are still underground but emerging in Jordan and Syria. The headlines are now dominated by an actual civil war in Libya, where strongman Muamar Kaddafi clings to power in spite of a chaotic yet determined armed uprising that for now has set up a provisional government in the eastern city of Benghazi.  The rebel government has received some legitimacy by being recognized by France, and it is receiving military aid in the form of the enforcement of a UN-sanctioned and NATO-implemented no-fly zone over Libya. The US is providing logistical and command-and-control support, but the Obama Administration has reiterated its desire to keep US ground troops out of Libyan soil. The United States does not want to undermine the indigenous uprising against Kaddafi by co-opting the military struggle and turning the fight into a Western-dominated effort to invade a third Muslim nation. One aspect that differentiates American involvement in Libya to date from previous military adventures in the region is that the nations of the Arab League have endorsed NATO action against Kaddafi so that he cannot use deadly force against his own people, the very same that have rebelled against him and threatened his forty-year old grip on power.

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