Shadi Hamid's The Problem with Democracy

(23 Feb 2023) notes

Hamid proposes democratic minimalism as the strategy for American foreign policy in the Middle East, and to decouple expectations of liberal outcomes from democracy promotion.

What Hamid manages to do is to

  1. be consistent in his application of democratic minimalism in his critique of the Obama and Biden administrations. He points out that Trump was disinterested in American interference in the Middle East and beyond, and cannot be accused of the hypocrisy of Obama and Biden.
  2. lay out an analysis of the Islamic Brotherhood’s political success (and lack thereof) across the Middle East. This serves as a good introduction/reference to a critical but pro-Islamist view of the politics across the Middle East.

Where Hamid falls short is

  1. to convince the readers that promoting Islamist politics is actually what the people in the Middle East want. In fact, Hamid does a good job of critically analyzing the lack of an ‘Islamic’ vision of the Brotherhood politics (c.f. Hassan al-Banna), and how the attempts at ‘modernization’ have been met with criticism from ultraconservative Muslims. Who does promoting an Islamist politics benefit?
  2. to make a convincing case of the success of democracy promotion. It is unfair to pose this question, but it would be pretty cool to setup a thought experiment to evaluate the success of the introduction of democracy in a non-Islamic context, instead of the polemics at the end of the book (chapters ‘On Hypocrisy’ and ‘On Power’).

I found the book to be a very engaging read because Hamid brings up many new ideas that could have taken him in completely different directions. Political leverage, agency of a nation-state, the “international community”. I found myself wishing that Hamid had moved the characterization of Islamic politics (chapter 8 “Islamists in Government”) much earlier in the book to set the context.