Ballots and Bullets: The Making of an Undemocratic and Militarized Middle East

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The promotion of democracy and liberal ideas has been used to justify Western intervention in the Middle East since the early 19th century. The United States and liberal internationalists have argued that the spread of democracy will restore peace to an unstable region and remodel its tattered political structure.[1] Appeals to a historical democratic ethos have placed the United States at the forefront of this international effort. Supposed democratic state building in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade have given Western powers unprecedented global authority. At the brink of the Iraqi invasion, former President George W. Bush affirmed plans for a long term strategy of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.[2] In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, he declared, “Sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because, in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”[3] However, a careful historical examination of U.S. behavior in the region clearly reveals its actions to be anything but democratic. Instead, it consists of unwavering support for autocratic regimes and – more significantly – an irrevocable process of militarization.

Any astute political analyst would recognize U.S. claims of democratic exportation to be nothing more than fledgling political rhetoric designed to deceive an uninformed populace. But many political commentators and statesmen alike are convinced that the U.S. possess sole right to spread democracy and intervene – at whatever costs – in the affairs of other nations.[4] In addition to being dangerously pretentious, this belief simply ignores historical data and facts.

U.S. interests in the Middle East can be succinctly summarized as follows: ensuring cheap access to energy reserves, maintaining a strong military presence in order to curb the rise of Iran, Russia, and China, and protecting the state of Israel. To safeguard these strategic goals, U.S. policymakers have utilized two methods– autocracies and automatic weapons. In fact, a substantial number of U.S. backed dictatorial regimes have conceded to upholding the aforementioned policy objectives. The regimes include, but are not limited to, The Shah of Iran (1941-1979), Sadaam Hussein (1982 -1990), Ali Abdullah Saleh (1990-2012), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1945 – present), Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987 – 2010), and Hosni Mubarak (1981- 2011). In order to guarantee the survival of these despotic regimes, the U.S. has fortified their defense systems with state of the art military armaments.


When U.S. involvement in the Middle East intensified during the Cold War, policymakers understood the importance of counteracting Soviet encroachment. To accomplish this goal, authoritarian regimes were set in place in order to prevent Moscow from gaining significant political and economic influence. David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, explains this foreign policy strategy in his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

He states,

“While the U.S. toyed with colonial conquest at the end of the 19th century, it evolved a more open system of imperialism without colonies during the twentieth century… The answer was to find a local strongman… and to provide economic and military assistance to him and his family and immediate allies so that they could repress or buy off opposition and accumulate considerable wealth and power for themselves. In return they would always keep their country open to the operations of US capital and support, and if necessary promote US interest, both in the country and in the region…”[5]

He further states,

“In the post war period, much of the non-communist world was open to US domination by tactics of this sort. This became the method of choice to fight off the threat of communist insurgencies and revolution, entailing an anti-democratic (and even more emphatically anti-populist and anti-socialist/communist) strategy on the part of the US that put the US more and more in alliance with repressive military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes…”[6]

With this historical framework in mind, the motivation behind some of the recent geopolitical developments in the region become clearer. More significantly, Harvey’s arguments explain why from the early 1950s, the U.S. continued to support autocratic regimes with prodigious military aid. But, Cold War history aside, how has this foreign policy strategy played out recently?

In 2007, the Bush administration sold Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf States – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE – over 20 billion dollars in military weapons.[7] President Obama followed suit in 2010 with an unprecedented 60 billion dollar deal with Saudi Arabia.[8] The militarization of the Persian Gulf can be seen as an effort to unnerve Sunni petro-states and assuage their fears of an attack from a nuclear armed Shiite Iran. More importantly, its constant supply of weapons to Gulf monarchies gives the U.S. a permanent military foothold in the region. In addition to supplying Sadam Hussein with a sophisticated military arsenal during the first Persian Gulf War, the U.S. has been providing the state of Iraq with over 1.3 billion dollars of annual military aid.[9] Propping up military regimes in return for weapons sales in Iraq gives the U.S. strategic access to cheap oil reserves. In Egypt, the U.S. and Israel collaborated to preserve the docile and compliant regime of Hosni Mubarak – hence their multilateral support accounting for 1.5 billion dollars of annual military assistance.[10]

The strategy here is quite clear. Once states are heavily armed to the teeth, it’s only natural for them to feel apprehensive about their militarily equipped neighbor. Thus, in order to quell their anxieties, each state asks for more security. This creates a vicious and unending cycle of military proliferation. This policy of building regional anxiety and mistrust while concurrently moderating those fears with hard power, can be seen as an extension of the colonial “divide and rule” tactic. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Middle East is the most militarized region in the world.[11]

Unfortunately this trend shows no signs of receding. According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, Gulf States still stand as the world’s largest importer of arms[12]. In 2011, weapons sales by the United States tripled to a record high, accounting for 3/4ths of the global arms market.[13] However, while the facts clearly point towards a continued process of militarization, political analysts still maintain U.S. actions are justified under the greater pretext of spreading democracy and long term stability. If anything, when Muslim majority countries have held successful democratic elections – Algeria’s election of the ISF in 1991 and Egypt’s election of Morsi in 2012 – they have been usurped by authoritarian regimes backed and supported by the United States. The United States’ refusal to allow the democratically elected Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria to take power led to a bloody civil war which claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 Algerians.[14] At the time, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker stated, “We didn’t live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be.”[15] Furthermore, the current Sisi dictatorship in Egypt has ostensibly proven itself to be a brutal extension of the Mubarak regime. Yet despite Egypt’s totalitarian tendencies, the U.S. does not hesitate to supply the regime with over a billion dollars in weapons and economic aid. The overthrow of the democratically elected President of Iran in 1955 – which still bolsters anti-American sentiment – is another case in point. Even when nations have arrived at a democratic consensus regarding authority, and carried out equitable measures to ensure their consensus is actualized i.e. instituting a democratically elected leader, the United States has nefariously usurped this process under the guise of “interest” and “strategic objectives.”

But staunch military support for autocratic regimes and clandestine supported coup d’états are not the only regional inhibitors to democratic development in the Middle East. To understand how true democracy is being structurally undermined, one has to analyze the level of institutional development. Building accessible institutions dedicated to developing a body politic equipped with an informed consciousness about political, economic, and social realities, is integral for the proper maturation of democratic systems. These institutions include mass education, healthcare, and other social programs committed to providing essential amenities and, on the macro scale, improving the general welfare of humanity. Only through the development of institutions can an all-encompassing participatory democracy be created. Ironically, the fratricidal militarization of the Middle East by Western agents has heavily undermined institutional development. Instead, armaments have been used to quell domestic uprisings, protect corporate interest, destabilize entire regions, and perpetuate exploitation.

Decades of U.S. induced militarization is outwardly supporting tyrannical regimes and internally preventing democratic progress. The structural violence caused by militarism is not accidental or, for the most part, unintended. Ultimately, the perpetuation of instability is a continuation of neo-colonial policy designed to create insecurity, and hence, justify a long term U.S. military presence in the Middle East. A long term Western military presence, alongside the structural violence created by militarized political institutions, will continue to defy democratic ideals and destroy any possibility of democratic cultivation in the future. Unless citizens are given the opportunity and sovereignty to structurally reconfigure their institutions and power systems, the end result of this despotic cycle will most likely include oppression, sectarian bloodshed, and financial exploitation.






[5] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pg.27

[6] Ibid., 28.










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