Small Wars Journal

Why We Should Support Democratic Revolution in the Islamic World

Sat, 01/29/2011 - 4:28pm
Why We Should Support Democratic Revolution in the Islamic World

by Dr. Robert J. Bunker

Download The Full Article: Why We Should Support Democratic Revolution in the Islamic World

Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have caught senior U.S. policymakers off guard like a herd of deer frozen in the headlights of a big rig barreling down the highway. The State Department contingency plan now appears to be to pretend to play the middle in the media—between the democratic yearnings of the mob and the longing looks of friendly despots— while privately clinging to principals of realpolitik. Calls for democratic freedoms and reforms to be implemented in Egypt, the true center of gravity for the Arab region, are being made but they are no more than hallow exaltations.

The U.S. has the bad habit of backing corrupt despots and the ruling families and elites that support them. Who can forget the Ngo family in South Vietnam, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, and General Manuel Noreiga in Panama? As long as this general or that ruler is —to back our foreign policies in the region of concern, we turn a blind eye to inequality, authoritarianism, torture, rigged voting, and other abuses. If they should dare to cross us, however, then all bets are off and they may just find themselves dead or rotting in a jail cell for the rest of their lives. International relations is much like a knife fight— outside help is always welcome, little thought is given to the baggage that may come with offers of support, and you had always better watch your back. Ultimately, these friendly despots and their cronies are 'not our friends' and definitely not 'legitimately elected leaders'. We also tend to get morally tainted by our relations with these types; not that our silver-tongued diplomats would give this a second thought. Realpolitik requires sacrifices and morality quickly becomes relative and squishy to the policy being implemented or crisis now at hand.

Download The Full Article: Why We Should Support Democratic Revolution in the Islamic World

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal. He has over 200 publications including Non-State Threats and Future Wars (editor); Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency (editor); Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers (editor); and Narcos Over the Border (editor). He can be reached at

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at   



Wed, 02/09/2011 - 12:19am

Yes, revolutions typically bring disappointment. They bring great euphoria and high expectation at a time when government capacity is extremely low. The problems that sparked conflict are generally all still there, and fledgling democracies, when those emerge, are often painfully inept, gridlocked, and uncertain. Recidivism into dictatorship and all manner of other problems often ensue.

None of that argues against revolution. Evolution is preferable, but when governments refuse it and revolution is the only way to remove the dead wood, they will happen, messy as they are.

Moha (not verified)

Fri, 02/04/2011 - 6:47pm

If indeed the Americans are gone to Iraq, spending trillions and despite the complete illegality of that act to restore democracy to Iraqi people, why are they unable to support the Egyptian people democratic and peaceful revolution ? this would win them another democracy in the region, and without spending a single dollar.

One also must take in consideration Israel and the huge influence it has over the US, Israel doesn't want to see democracy in the Muslim world for a simple reason : Israel biggest fear is a united Muslim world, they know what the Muslim world wants : justice for Palestine, therefore democracy is not good for them, they need puppets like good old Mubarak.

MAJ Kris P. (not verified)

Sun, 01/30/2011 - 8:56pm

The recent unrest in Egypt is something the Western world must not turn their backs one, but also must tread very carefully.
Looking at the recent demonstrations it's easy for us to sit back and think to ourselves "great, it's about time people started fighting back against these oppressive regimes". But who will fill the vacuum once Mubarak is out? Is it really beneficial to any Western country, more importantly the United States, to have the Muslim Brotherhood in power? What about Israel? I'm sure that it is taking every ounce of diplomatic prowess the U.S. and the Western world can muster to keep them from flying east to Iran; what are we going to do to hold Israel back if a fundamentalist regime takes over in Egypt?
At this time I feel that it's too soon for the U.S. to make any sort of stand on the Egyptian issue. I will admit that as I watch the events unfold on TV it brings a smile to my face that people are standing up for what they believe in in the Middle East....but how far are they willing to go has yet to be seen. If however violence is used to suppress these demonstrations the U.S. will have to make a stand, more than likely through economic means.
The outcome of events in Egypt, as well as Tunisia and Yemen, will certainly shape the U.S. foreign policies for these countries and this region for years to come. One thing is clear looking over the last few years in the Middle East, change is coming and it's being driven by the youth like "JPS" stated above, mainly because of Globalization and the fact that these regimes are finding it more difficult everyday to control information flow.
The United States needs to make sure that we are poised to deal with whatever changes come when they come. We can ill afford to be caught off guard again, and need to be weary of any change in the Middle East. As an officer in the U.S. Army I am very pessimistic about sudden changes in regimes, especially in an area of the world that doesn't necessarily breed allies of the U.S.


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

JackC (not verified)

Sun, 01/30/2011 - 5:10am

"Who can forget the Ngo family in South Vietnam, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, and General Manuel Noreiga in Panama?"

Yeah. Who can forget the years wasted in Vietnam after eliminating the only nationalist leader with standing in South Vietnam. Or passively substituting Khoemeini for the Shah.

I'd just like to note that you don't have any more of an idea of what will replace these governments (Tunisia/Egypt) than those who allowed Diem's and Reza Pahlavi's governments to go down the tubes. The latter two acts were two of the worst mistakes in American foreign policy in the last 50 years. That isn't to say that this will turn out as bad as those cases, I happen to think they won't. But it does indicate that anyone who's that confident of their call in a case like this is oblivious.

"Morally Tainted" by Policy? We are Destabilizing our own *Ethical Climate*!

COGNITION, EMOTION, and ETHICS/VALUES are the 3 legs of any Individual's,
(Sub-)Culture's, or Social Institution's Worldview. If 1 leg is weakened,
the burden of maintaining Worldview Stability shifts onto the other 2 legs.
(Otherwise, both psychological integrity and social cohesion crumble.)

One leg of American Empire stability is in fibrillation,
due to COGNITIVE DISSONANCE with Reality -- economic,
environmental, demographic, COIN, and cultural Reality.

So unless self-inflicted "Perception Management" medication
(i.e, the "lying to themselves" that SECDEF Gates properly decried)
[ ]
can provide a Cognitive crutch, the Emotional and Ethical legs must
bear more stress to "stay the course" (of Economic and Military policy).

The ETHICAL leg of American stability -- both in the military
and in the civilian subcultures -- is overburdened.

Why? Partly because our diplomatic policies -- and military surges --
induce SURGES IN *CORRUPTION AND COMPLICITY*. We wink, and pretend
not to notice, while the Saudi royal family pays Protection Money
to Al Qaeda. We bless Petraeus' strategy of paying Protection Money
to divide-and-conquer "moderate" Taliban warlords, because that
imposes only minor ethical costs, compared to what we are paying
Karzai to centralize control of a corrupt narco-state.

And it will work ... for a while, this "EXTEND AND PRETEND" strategy.
But we lack the resources to extend this charade beyond a decade.
And in the meantime, this approach is imposing potentially-unbearable
ETHICAL DISSONANCE stress on the American military, that prizes Honor.

The Ethical Blowback to American civilians' Worldview means *Corruption*
is ever more *legitimized*, *incentivized*, and *institutionalized*
by No-bid contracts, and by lucrative outsourcing of core
U.S. government intel and military functions to private-sector actors,
unburdened by any pretense of democratic accountability.

Napoleon famously said, "The moral is to the physical as three to one."

Yes, "Realpolitik requires sacrifices."
The U.S. still has ample reserves of Blood and Treasure to waste.
But Ethical *INTEGRITY* is *not* a renewable resource!

Starbuck, looks like we are on the same wavelength.

Be careful what you wish for.

Will the Egyptian economy get better under the control of the well-educated yet unemployed looting masses with a median age of 24? That is a primary problem in all these nations. Many people...fewer jobs. The tourism jobs and outside industry won't be there if a country looks unstable, no matter how "democratic" it is.

Then look to Lebanon and see what a democratic process can lead to. We can't interfere with that process or even appear to interfere...but we should be afraid.

Why? These countries surround Israel and a Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon on one side and more Islamic-extremist Egypt on the other side would not help maintain peace. If nothing else, Mubarek has precluded war with Israel.

Mubarek and his backers also have maintained a non-oppressive appearing order, and presided over a relatively stable economy. I can't recall ever feeling very unsafe in Cairo or Egypt in 1990. It appeared then to have a moderately good economy even if police were on every corner.

Then there is the worldwide economy. We are still recovering from the last round of high gas prices. Now the Suez canal is threatened, Yemen is teetering; is Saudi Arabia next? The last thing we need now is $150 a barrel oil and a tanked stock market as the baby boomers start to retire.

Guess we have no choice but to walk a middle line, encouraging Mubarek and his vice president not to clamp down too hard while also encouraging reforms and elections, hoping the masses won't bring greater chaos, with the Muslim Brotherhood waiting in the wings.

Angel (not verified)

Sat, 01/29/2011 - 9:37pm

Was in Egypt in 2007, girls with veils and jeans, you could smell someting was going to happen.A mess of a country.Same for Libia, Argelia, Tunez and Marruecos. But dont be denied, what is wrong is their system of belief.Corrupted leaders being only a byproduct of it.

Islam is dead. Belongs to Death.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 01/29/2011 - 9:20pm


Good commentary and recommendations on an important situation. At the core of the current crisis in Egypt--and the contemporaneous crises in Tunisia and Yemen--is a failure of polities in the region to meet the needs and expectations of their population. All too often the elite have secured the state through coercion, censorship, and displacing conflict. Equitable distribution of power and economic goods have been neglected. Nasr's experiment with socialism failed, the region in part turned to the prospect of political Islam which has yet to flourish. Meanwhile Islamist extremists have sought to fill the void. Many of those actors seek to use terrorism as a tool for change. Yet they, too, are largely absent from this current revolt.

Western states and plutocrats have tacitly allowed despots to hold the reins of power to keep first socialists, then Islamists from power. Now, a growing youth bulge (without any meaningful access to political and economic power) is at the core of a new revolt, enabled and extended by new media (horizontal means of mass self communication--i.e., Twitter, blogs, SMS, etc.).

It will be interesting to see where this goes and if Western states do more than voice platitudes about freedom. It is imperative to support democratic progress, but this must be joined by economic access. The Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda are currently not directly engaged in this popular movement, but if democratic and economic access are not readily apparent, it is likely that they will seek to exploit the situation. Meaningful support to democratic progress in North Africa and the Middle East are--as you suggest--essential. If the underlying disparities of economic access and political voice are not mitigated it won't be long before the popular revolt spreads to other despotic states in the region. JPS