What Fahreed Zakaria means by the "Islamic Exception" is that the United States has vacillating policies on human rights when it comes to promoting those beliefs in the Middle East. Zakaria argues that if the United States tries to enforce those rights, Islamic fundamentalists will retaliate and take over regions that would otherwise remain relatively moderate. The problem is very difficult for Western democracies, because the "Arab world is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither fertile ground for a liberal democracy."
Even when the United States sees its efforts pay off in quasi-democratic elections, the results are not always pleasing. Zakaria quotes the American diplomat Richard Holbrook, who made the following observation about Yugoslavia in the 1990s: “Suppose the elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists. That is the dilemma”