Despite what appears to be genuine democratic movement in the Arab world, the fear of instability in various parts of the Middle East provides the champions of the status quo with a lifeline to advance their argument which has always favoured stability over democracy. Scholars and analysts, who have never believed that the Arab world can ever embrace democracy as a political and economic system, are exploiting the difficult transition to democracy in Libya, Yemen and Syria to make their voice heard in US academic and political circles. Through lobbying, publicity and media coverage they have been trying to influence US policy in the Middle East at a time when the Obama administration is struggling to establish a clear strategy to deal with the unexpected developments in the Arab region. "The fact that a state is despotic does not necessarily make it immoral. That is the essential fact of the Middle East that those intent on enforcing democracy abroad forget," Robert Kaplan, a distinguished US writer, argued in an article published in the Washington Post. A few years ago, such voices were eclipsed by the shock of 9/11. At the time, the real threat for America seemed to be coming from undemocratic regimes and 'failed states' in the Middle East. The rationale behind this argument was that there are 'failed', 'rogue' and 'weak' states in the world that are, in varying ways, brutalising and killing their own people, disrupting regional stability, developing weapons of mass destruction, engaging in acts of terror or are linked with violent anti-western terrorist organisations. In such cases, it is the moral duty of democratic states to intervene in a variety of ways, including militarily, and even pre-emptively, to ensure that humanitarian crises are brought to an end, that good government is restored or implanted and that order reigns. GLOBAL STRATEGY In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, democratic imperialists gained the upper hand, wherein their ideas served as the guiding principle for the US global strategy. "In a world where evil is still very real, democratic principles must be backed with power in all its forms: political and economic, cultural and moral, and yes, sometimes military", former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice suggested once. Iraq was the first step in a long process to implement this strategy: overthrow Arab autocrats and replace them with democratically elected governments. This optimism, which accompanied the drive for democracy in the Arab world, did not last long, however. The failure of the Iraq venture and the rise of movements in Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian territories through the ballot box undercut the influence of this school, giving way for a rival argument to emerge. So-called traditional realists argued that pressure for democracy will present the US with a number of immediate dangers and few clear advantages. The likelihood of the Middle East producing fully democratic regimes in the next 10-15 years is remote; it enjoys none of the recognised prerequisites for sustaining democracy: its elites are not committed to democracy, its population is not homogeneous, its national institutions are extremely weak and its per capita GDP is lower than the level commonly viewed as the democratic tipping point. Furthermore, the transition to democracy would almost certainly lead to the disintegration of state institutions, such as the army and police and Arab countries would slip into chaos and inter-confessional violence. Worse still for this school was that the likely alternative to the existing Arab regimes are Islamic governments run by the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Obama administration came to power a couple of years ago, developments on the grounds in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to be approving the argument of this school. He therefore dumped the democracy promotion thesis and decided to focus instead on stability through strengthening relations with the autocrats of the Arab and Islamic world. The belief that America must support authoritarian regimes or else face a chaotic situation gained momentum in Washington. The relatively smooth transition in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year must have disappointed traditional realists. It is early to suggest, though, that the pro-stability school has completely lost ground inside the Obama administration. What is clear; however, is that a titanic intellectual conflict over the direction of US foreign policy and the future of the Arab world is taking place in Washington. Alas, this happens while the Arab world needs all the assistance required to get through the transformation process from autocracy to democracy. Gulf News