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Is Spreading Democracy in Middle East a Bad Idea?

An Iraqi woman shows her inked finger after voting at a polling station in December 2005 in Baghdad.
Muhannad Fala'ah
Getty Images
An Iraqi woman shows her inked finger after voting at a polling station in December 2005 in Baghdad.

Ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has said that one of its key rationales for overthrowing Saddam Hussein was that an Iraq with a freely chosen, representative government could serve as a model for spreading democracy in the Middle East.

Iraq did succeed in holding elections, but the result was a government fractured along sectarian and ethnic lines that has been unable to act on vital legislation. A democratic election among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank produced a tumultuous government led by Hamas, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

Is it really in the United States' interest to promote free elections in countries where the most politically powerful groups may be fundamentally anti-American and undemocratic?


That question was posed recently to a panel of experts in an Oxford-style debate, part of the Intelligence Squared U.S. series. The debates are modeled on a program begun in London in 2002: Three experts argue in favor of the proposition and three argue against.

In the latest debate, held on Sept. 18, the formal proposition was "Spreading Democracy in the Middle East is a Bad Idea." The debate was held at the Asia Society and Museum in New York City and was moderated by Robert Siegel, the senior host of National Public Radio's award-winning program All Things Considered and the radio host of the Intelligence Squared series.

In a vote before the debate, 46 percent of the audience supported the proposition and 36 percent opposed it, while 18 percent said they were undecided. After the debate, the audience voted 55 percent in support, 40 percent against and 5 percent undecided.

Highlights from the debate:

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