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America is turning away from support for democrats in Arab countries in favor of 'pragmatic' deals with tyrants to defeat violent Islamist extremism. For too many policymakers, Arab democracy is seen as a dangerous luxury. In Realism and Democracy, Elliott Abrams marshals four decades of experience as an American official and leading Middle East expert and shows that deals America is turning away from support for democrats in Arab countries in favor of 'pragmatic' deals with tyrants to defeat violent Islamist extremism. For too many policymakers, Arab democracy is seen as a dangerous luxury. In Realism and Democracy, Elliott Abrams marshals four decades of experience as an American official and leading Middle East expert and shows that deals with tyrants will not work. Islamism is an idea that can only be defeated by a better idea: democracy. Through a careful analysis of America's record of democracy promotion in the region and beyond, from the Cold War to the Obama years, Abrams proves that repression helps Islamists beat democrats, while political openings offer moderates and liberals a chance. This book makes a powerful argument for an American foreign policy that combines practical politics and idealism and refuses to abandon those struggling for democracy and human rights in the Arab world.


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America is turning away from support for democrats in Arab countries in favor of 'pragmatic' deals with tyrants to defeat violent Islamist extremism. For too many policymakers, Arab democracy is seen as a dangerous luxury. In Realism and Democracy, Elliott Abrams marshals four decades of experience as an American official and leading Middle East expert and shows that deals America is turning away from support for democrats in Arab countries in favor of 'pragmatic' deals with tyrants to defeat violent Islamist extremism. For too many policymakers, Arab democracy is seen as a dangerous luxury. In Realism and Democracy, Elliott Abrams marshals four decades of experience as an American official and leading Middle East expert and shows that deals with tyrants will not work. Islamism is an idea that can only be defeated by a better idea: democracy. Through a careful analysis of America's record of democracy promotion in the region and beyond, from the Cold War to the Obama years, Abrams proves that repression helps Islamists beat democrats, while political openings offer moderates and liberals a chance. This book makes a powerful argument for an American foreign policy that combines practical politics and idealism and refuses to abandon those struggling for democracy and human rights in the Arab world.

30 review for Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring

  1. 5 out of 5

    Michael Ting

    Normally I try to abstain from book reviews, but this book has none and is certainly deserving of one, My first impressions of the book were apprehensive at best; the author was a senior policymaker & government official of the Bush 43 administration- one which made several foreign policy mistakes and the title seemed like a justification for war in the Middle East, or for future casus belli. Abrams chose to include the Arab Spring in the title, and for good reason being that he wished to highli Normally I try to abstain from book reviews, but this book has none and is certainly deserving of one, My first impressions of the book were apprehensive at best; the author was a senior policymaker & government official of the Bush 43 administration- one which made several foreign policy mistakes and the title seemed like a justification for war in the Middle East, or for future casus belli. Abrams chose to include the Arab Spring in the title, and for good reason being that he wished to highlight the discontentment experienced by the Arab citizens as a result of suppression and dissatisfaction for their country’s autocrats. Ben Ali & Mubarak was after all ousted as a result of this political upheaval. The book argues for the justification of human rights & promotion of democracy as a core pillar of US foreign policy. The title “Realism & democracy” showcased 2 different schools of thought, realism or realpolitik as the anthithesis of the idea of promoting democracy & free elections. Abrams argues that the promotion of democracy in authoritarian states is in American medium to long term interests & that the USA should not coddle to the dictators even if it brings them short term benefits. He starts off by pitting the Carter & Nixon/Kissinger/Ford application of détente & realpolitik against Reagan’s Wilsonian approach and subsequently the Bush administration’s. Abrams says Arab citizens should not settle for less, when presented with a lesser of 2 evils scenario: to be ruled by an Islamist regime or to have an autocrat keep the radicals at bay (autocracy vs anarchy). What I really liked about the book was it was non-partisan in every manner. It is rare to find a book that does not lean right or left and articulates its arguments coherently, well with facts and reason. Abrams acknowledges all the flaws and shortfalls of the democracy establishment argument and even states everything in the book such as, inter alia, the dissatisfaction of foreign citizens being unappreciative and disapproving of American intervention (what happened to Westphalian sovereignty?), further radicalization of fundamentalists as a reaction to the evangelizing of Western values, the possible establishment of Islamist regimes elected as a result of democracy, and the lack of democratic ideals and rhetoric in the Middle East. The non-partisanship was however, minorly eclipsed when Abrams criticizes the Obama administration, and accuses POTUS 44 of being a proponent of realpolitik, accepting autocrats and the reduction of democratic and human rights rhetoric in Obama’s foreign policy. I was particularly surprised to see Abrams associating and accepting himself as a “neocon”, an unpopular term, and wearing the branding as a badge of honor! There were also 2 small spelling /grammatical mistakes in the book (such as ‘pubic’ in the place of ‘public’) which probably was a result of printing errors. What Abrams failed to majorly address was the issues of Iran, and the USA’s alliance with Israel. One of the raison d etre for US policy of accommodation for dictators in the Arab regime is because of their role in fortifying non-alignment with Iran (1 of US declared Axis of Evil) and to ensure that US has stability and influence in the Middle East in managing Iran. Iran’s belligerent rhetoric serves as a threat to US interests and the security of its important ally, Israel. Further, the rapport built between neutral states such as Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt & other nations help reduce Israel’s concerns from impending threats from its surrounding regional neighbours. Lastly, there is a lack of demand for democracy contrasted with an over-supply of it in the Middle East. It is perfectly reasonable to say that the Arab & Middle East countries certainly do not like to be told what to do and forced into diplomatic pressures that they do not agree to as a result of America flexing its diplomatic clout. Unlike other books, Abrams offers solutions and not just idealistic rhetoric. Most of the solutions are unrealistic and would assume full cooperation from Arab states (which is unfeasible) while the realistic ones would see results only over a longer term, with the risk of the results being minimal and underwhelming. Would I recommend you to buy this book? Yes, it will certainly add more value to your life to read this rather than other books such as “What Happened” by Hillary Clinton. The book is no revolutionary political work such as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations or Fukuyama’s End of History, and the controversy it may cause is extremely minimal (unpopular view). However, I must further stress that it is really well written and I walk away successfully persuaded as I’m more accepting towards the ideas and pros of democracy promotion. As such, I will give it a 4.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Adrian

    The notion of democracy promotion has become increasingly tainted and fewer people take the idea seriously, so naturally this book was approached with skepticism by this reader. However, Abrams performed a remarkable task in cogently laying out the case for the relevance of democracy in foreign policy calculations, and ardently convincing this reader that it can and indeed, must work in the Middle East, and for these reasons the book is a true success. Abrams approaches the subject realistically The notion of democracy promotion has become increasingly tainted and fewer people take the idea seriously, so naturally this book was approached with skepticism by this reader. However, Abrams performed a remarkable task in cogently laying out the case for the relevance of democracy in foreign policy calculations, and ardently convincing this reader that it can and indeed, must work in the Middle East, and for these reasons the book is a true success. Abrams approaches the subject realistically and does not proffer any kind of idealistic judgements that free elections in the Middle East will result in social justice by our standards, rather Abrams illustrates how the outlook for democracy in the Middle East is not so bleak, that Islamists can and often do lose after an initial win, and that they do (in the case of Tunisia) give up power. Additionally, Abrams outlines a very effective strategy for both civil society building and democracy promotion that is realistic in its outlook, as Abrams acknowledges that true democracy is the work of decades. Elliott dispels many frequently held arguments, such as the better the devil you know policy, arguing that right wing dictatorships eventually lead to something much worse when they fall, and it is preferable if Washington uses influence to nudge them toward democratic reform, as Abrams illustrates in the case of Marcos in the Philippines and Pinochet in Chile. Abrams work is not, as many would assume, a manifesto for regime changes or a democracy by the sword approach, quite the opposite. Abrams lays out how US interests, and global interests, are served by policies that actively promote and favour democracy and demonstrates this through the opening chapter covering the evolving nature of US Human Rights policy and goes on to illustrate how policies can and should be applied. Overall, a very academic and well-reasoned work, and one that renews hope that democracy can be realized in the Middle East.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Josh Ehrich

    A well thought out book chronicling the history of human rights and democracy as American foreign policy from one of the main participants. I think many of proposed points are well reasoned and salient to future policy formation, however I think he doesn’t really understand the role religion plays. Coming from a secular perspective without an understanding of absolutist faiths will limit application in highly religious societies. Also one critical factor missing in his analysis is time. Democrac A well thought out book chronicling the history of human rights and democracy as American foreign policy from one of the main participants. I think many of proposed points are well reasoned and salient to future policy formation, however I think he doesn’t really understand the role religion plays. Coming from a secular perspective without an understanding of absolutist faiths will limit application in highly religious societies. Also one critical factor missing in his analysis is time. Democracy in the English speaking world developed over nearly a thousand years. Even in the US we had the articles of confederation before the constitution. We’ve had a civil war and much contentious strife getting to where we are today. Middle eastern societies do not have this history. Therefore you cannot expect to go from monarchy or dictator to democracy over night or even over a decade. Japan and Germany were totally defeated. Cities firebombed or nuked. They were prostrated before the victorious allies and had no option but to become democracies. Without that kind of total defeat to reorient a culture and society you must anticipate democratic growth to take long periods of time.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    Compelling argument against the policy of realpolitik in the Middle East but rather of promoting human rights and democracy which the author argues is more secure than propping up the autocrat of the day.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Patrick F

    Great book; I hope to teach it one day.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Paul Sullivan

  7. 4 out of 5

    Gursimrat Kaur

  8. 4 out of 5

    Veronica Russu

  9. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

  10. 4 out of 5

    Faisal Abdulaziz

  11. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  12. 5 out of 5

    Spenser A.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Hermann Thiel

  14. 5 out of 5

    John

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Abrams

  16. 4 out of 5

    Chris Sutton

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas Kinberg

  18. 5 out of 5

    Zach

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ben Zimmer

  20. 5 out of 5

    Natasha

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jason ZY Zhang

  22. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Swan

  23. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dean

    Very unfortunate that our current administration failed to get this experienced practitioner and diplomat on the team.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joe Federici

  26. 5 out of 5

    Eli Banghart

  27. 4 out of 5

    Karen Van Der Heijden

  28. 4 out of 5

    David

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Dean

  30. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Ostendorf

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