This article was last modified on September 14, 2007.

Condoleezza Rice on Middle East Democracy

Condoleezza Rice, the United States’ Secretary of State and former National Security Adviser, has spoken out in favor of democracy, particularly with regards to the Middle East. Her message, many would agree, is a good one. And many people, even scholars, seem to believe the rhetoric. Georgetown University’s Jonathan Monten, for example, writes that “promotion of democracy is central to the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of both the war on terrorism and its overall grand strategy.” But how serious is Rice about her commitment to democracy, and how serious is America? Some commentators, myself included, think Rice is more than just a little off the mark.

Rice quotes Bush’s second inaugural address in the December 11, 2005 issue of the Washington Post: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Those words seemed hollow when Bush spoke them, and almost hypocritical when Rice echoes them, knowing full well America’s history with democracy and tyranny.

The Background

While at Cairo’s American University on June 20, 2005, Rice spoke candidly about America’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspiration of all people.”

In the summer of 2006, she infamously referred to the violence in the Middle East as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” This remark was said to cause “anger and eye-rolling across the Middle East”. The Associated Press summed up Rice’s position as her saying “violence and hardship may be necessary to achieve freedom and that the forces of moderation and democracy will win out against what she called extremists.” Violence followed all three of the American-backed elections in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

In June of 2007, while in France, her “birth pang” remarks came under fire. Rice explained her thoughts on the matter at a conference with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. “It’s hard for democracy to take hold in a place where it has not taken hold before, but I am confident about the triumph of these values because I’ve seen it before… There is nothing wrong with the people of the Middle East… They can triumph and triumph democratically… Democracy is hard, and I see it as especially hard when there are determined enemies who try and strangle it.”

America’s Commitment to Middle East Democracy

Secretary Rice, acting as a spokesperson for the United States, may be sincere in her commitment to Middle East democracy. But actions taken by America over the past few decades, some while she was in office, seem to suggest that democracy is only something supported when the results will work in America’s favor.

There is of course our long-standing support of Saddam Hussein, both before and throughout his most terrible years — a lineage of support that can be traced back to President John F. Kennedy. Rice can claim that America has “pursued stability at the expense of democracy”, which is true on the surface. Democracy certainly did present itself as expendable to America. But the stability she speaks of is not Middle East stability, but American stability — the stability of our oil-dependent economy.

Did we make the Middle East more stable by supporting the Baath Party many years ago, giving rise to Saddam? Did we promote stability when we sold the gas to Saddam that killed the Kurds? Or when we turned a blind eye to his atrocities against his Arab brethren? The same crimes he was tried and hanged for were of no concern to us as they happened. The list goes on and on, and this is merely in Iraq — democracy crushed, and stability equally threatened.

Rice may claim our current efforts in Iraq (the occupation) are to build an Iraqi democracy. But democracy is founded on the will of the people, on the voices and desires of those who can run their own lives. And the current occupation is against Iraqi wishes — therefore being against democracy itself. Political analyst Ameer Makhoul is no fan of Secretary Rice, and has said the following:

“There was a semi-consensus within the Arab voice — of the people’s voice and social movements’ voice — that they are opposing the American voice. They look at the American interference as disturbing the people’s original demands for democratization and for reforms. People, in fact, are not seeking reforms. They are seeking more change — social and political change. Economic change.”

And Makhoul’s criticism and observation doesn’t just end at the Iraqi borders. The Arab people in general have suffered from America’s disloyalty to democracy. A prime example is the broad case of Palestine and the more narrow case of the Palestinian elections resulting in a Hamas government.

The Palestinians have been increasingly marginalized by the Israelis since 1947. Walled off from their holy sites, arrested and tortured and denied access to suitable drinking water, life for the Palestinians is second-class at best. President Jimmy Carter and others have compared Israel to South Africa during the apartheid years. How can a country devoted to democracy support Israel, knowing they treat an entire race of people — those who were on the land before them — so horribly, and patrol the streets in a manner not far removed from martial law?

As for the elections, what are we to make of that? Free and open elections are how democracies are run, and once the votes came out in favor of Hamas (a known terrorist group that has denied Israel’s right to exist in the past) the elections were denounced and aid was cut from the Palestinians. While it’s understandable to distance our government from a government that has ties to terror, there was no attempt on the part of the American leadership to be fair. Democracy spoke, and was deemed unworthy.

There was no time given to allow the “pothole theory” to be tested — the idea that radicals become moderate when brought into elected positions. There was no compromise or consideration that Hamas had both a political wing and a military wing, and that simply supporting a cause does not make one a terror supporter. And, in the grand sense, there was no historical consideration that America was founded by former terrorists and insurgents (men who rose up against the state of England), as was Israel (many Israeli prime ministers had been in terror groups).

How can America be seen as a bastion of democracy when we deny the will of the people time and time again, simply because the will goes against the economic or political objectives of our own country? How can our goals in a foreign land be more important than the goals of the people who live and work there each day and have for millennia?

Thomas Carothers, the director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment, can categorize explain America’s commitment to democracy and stability in the simplest of terms. “Where democracy appears to fit in well with US security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy. Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored,” he writes. Carothers cannot be dismissed as simply some anti-American peacenik; he served in the State Department of Ronald Reagan.

Can Violence Bring Democracy?

In her 2005 column, Rice says “Though the broader Middle East has no history of democracy, this is not an excuse for doing nothing.” Whether there is no history of democracy in the Middle East is debatable, but we will not touch on that here. We must consider the second half of her statement: there is no excuse for doing nothing. She is right, but is there an excuse for doing the wrong thing? Is a full-scale invasion the right thing?

John Chuckman has analyzed Rice’s words and is very direct in his criticism of her. “Ms. Rice displays little understanding of the history of democracy or of the circumstances which make it possible… [Rice classifies] unprovoked attack by a great power as an initiative for democracy,” he says. This interpretation is not far from mark, if we are to believe that anyone in the Bush Administration really had democracy in mind when the attack was launched.

Chuckman believes that contrary to something forced or given to people, democracy “is simply a natural development of a healthy, growing society.” We are in agreement that “it requires no revolution, no coup, and no sacred writ.” Democracy is a natural progression, achieved by people through struggle and through union. Historically, revolution played an important part in granting people power, but in the modern world it can just as easily be brought about through time. As the world becomes more global and countries less isolated, there remains little future for dictators and monarchs. Chuckman goes on to say:

“Democracy comes gradually because it represents a massive social change that affects all relationships in society. The chief driving force towards democracy is the emergence of a strong middle class whose members have too much at stake to leave decisions to a king or group of aristocrats. The size of the middle class expands by steady economic growth. In the West, this process of change has proceeded steadily since the Renaissance and the rise of science and applied technology, with variations in the pattern of individual countries reflecting adjustments to peculiarities of local culture, invasions, civil wars, and varying rates of economic change.”

Chuckman suggests that democracy is best achieved through economic gains from the lower and middles classes. America’s aggression has done essentially the opposite: by destroying important infrastructure and the ability to obtain quality health care and education, we have impoverished the peopel and their hopes for democracy. Chuckman claims that the “United States is the stingiest of all advanced countries in giving economic assistance to poor countries, giving at an annual rate of 1/10 of one percent of its GDP.” I do not know how accurate his numbers are, but his basic point is the key: helping the less fortunate out helps out the country as a whole. (The leaders here could take a lesson from Chuckman on how to treat our own people.)

A Note on Arms Sales

While I discuss the issue at length in my essay “Enemy of My Enemy”, it remains important to note that the trading or selling of arms to the Middle East by no means creates democracy or stability. We have flooded Iraq with weapons, and we are in the process of arming Israel (more than we already do), Saudi Arabia and Egypt. William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, sums it up: “Mideast stability can’t be promoted with arms, any more than democracy can be imposed through the barrel of a gun.” Military weapons lead to only one result, and a very predictable one at that: violence, bloodshed and chaos.


Whether Rice is committed to democracy or not is something we cannot be sure of, but her actions and support for the actions of others strongly suggest that she doesn’t take the idea very seriously. Many improvements can be made to democracy, both in foreign countries and here at home. America has not done much to encourage democratic participation or freedom of speech (the foundation of democracy). We have systematically done everything we can to aid and abet dictators around the world and keep elections rigged in our favor. While this has apparently been reduced, America’s overall aims and objectives are unchanged.

How much is Rice at fault? Is she ignorant, subservient to her superiors or simply dishonest? In her defense, I would argue that she is ignorant — she is so caught up in the American system and ideology that she truly believes what she is saying and has chosen a path she feels is noble. But absolution of her and her peers does nothing to absolve the system itself, which must be changed — and how do we do it? By growing and supporting a stronger democracy. And that’s the irony of it all — democracy is spread by spreading democracy. Which is why each one of us is an equally important piece of the puzzle.

A Note on Terminology

For the purposes of this essay, we are using the term “democracy” in the loosest sense. We will take democracy to mean any system that promotes the voice, opinions and decisions of the people residing in a particular area. I make this distinction to separate the argument in this essay from any discussion of “pure” or “direct” democracy, the idea that people should have majority rule over issues without any representatives. As philosophers and politicians have pointed out since at least the day’s of Plato’s Republic, many criticisms of that system exist and we will not be covering them here.


Carothers, Thomas. Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004.

Chuckman, John. “Condoleeza’s Nonsense About Democracy” Rense.Com March 31, 2004. Available online at

Donovan, Jeffrey. “Middle East: Reactions Mixed On Rice’s Democracy Message” RadioFreeEurope June 21, 2005.

Gearan, Anne. “Rice: Democracy will come to Middle East” Associated Press via Yahoo News, June 25, 2007.

Hartung, William D. “Exporting Instability” The Nation September 10/17, 2007.

Monten, Jonathan. “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy”,
International Security – Volume 29, Number 4, Spring 2005, pp. 112-156.

Rice, Condoleezza. “The Promise of Democratic Peace,” The Washington Post. December 11, 2005.

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