A multitude of issues contribute to the dysfunction of Arab Middle East polities, including traditions of colonialism, authoritarianism, the rentier state, clientalism, corruption, and imagined history. Most importantly Arab politics is dominated by ethno-nationalism and ideological belief systems. There is little tolerance for liberal pluralism. Despite the yearning of many for a meaningful pluralistic governance system, there is at best only modest prospect for successful liberal reform, so much are these traditions part of a deeply ingrown culture. For Western policymakers, “sober realism” must be the watch phrase. The spread of what we call “progressive values” is important but can only be satisfying when seen in the light of what “can be” rather than what we think “should be” done. To ignore this reality risks making matters worse rather than better.
The question of whether the transfer of basic rights and freedoms can be achieved on any broad scale in the long or medium term, let alone short term, requires examination. The record suggests that often policymakers and analysts can be overly ambitious in their expectations respecting the realization of “a better world.” In particular, the experiences of the countries of the Middle East both past and present support such an argument. What we in the West consider innate beliefs and attitudes can be much at variance with those of other societies, especially in the Arab world. Although often unrecognized, our efforts to export these attitudes can be labelled “cultural imperialism,” attempts to promote our values within what we deem less advanced polities. This does not invalidate the role of the West and progress can be made within limits. However, rejectionist attitudes remain a hard core reality, reinforced by the region’s long-standing authoritarian traditions, no matter how uncomfortable we may find them.