Obama Must Chart New Course in Arab World
President Obama will give a speech Thursday explaining his vision of what the Arab Spring means for American policy in the Middle East. Coming nearly two years after his Cairo speech, it has the chance to become a historic address. The speech should include four main points.
First, the Arab Spring represents a profound opportunity to align America's interests in the region with its values. The Middle East that produced Osama bin Laden is, like the man himself, gone. Replacing it are mass movements of ordinary people standing up for their rights. Assisting those fighting for freedom and democracy is a bedrock American value.
Additionally, America has an interest in maintaining stability in the Middle East and, by extension, the steady flow of oil. In the past, protecting that interest meant supporting autocrats and dictators as they used unsavory methods to stamp out any dissent that threatened stability. As both autocrats and extremists are being challenged across the region, a fundamental truth is being learned again: stability comes when the legitimate needs, desires and aspirations of people can be met. Only democracy can provide that.
That's not to say building a democracy will be easy. Bahrain, Syria and Libya so far have been tragic reminders of the opposite. The notion that the fall of a repressive regime solves everything is naïve. Which brings us to the second point: There are no cookie-cutter solutions or quick fixes. Each country and each situation is different.
America's approach should be to focus on short-term vigilance against threats that still exist - the remnants of al-Qaeda, opportunism from Iran - while helping take the long-view in building institutions of democracy that can solve endemic problems. That means creating robust institutions to ensure free and fair elections, fostering economic growth that can take advantage of the deep reservoir of human capital across the region and reforming justice systems to build legitimacy. A sustainable democracy requires more than elections. The U.S. failed to recognize that in Gaza in 2006, and Hamas was the result.
Third, America's role in these movements should focus on the civilian tools of power. Regional events since a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself aflame have been driven by citizens on the ground. The movement is about them, not America. That fact should lead us to employ civilian tools, like Twitter and preferential trade agreements, to help people help themselves. America should lead the West in offering newly forged democracies in Tunisia, Egypt and whoever else might be successful in rejecting authoritarianism with development assistance. Countries without natural resource wealth should receive money, those with resource wealth should get technical expertise for managing that wealth and avoiding the "oil curse."
The focus on civilian assistance stems from an acknowledgment of two stark realities. First, with tight budgets and the resultant political pressure to spend at home and cut overseas, senior policymakers must explain to Americans the value of civilian tools abroad. Since the U.S. doesn't have the resources to fix everything, policymakers should put money where it can do the most good; diplomacy and development deliver the most bang for the buck. Second, Western military action in the Middle East has significant drawbacks. It is both expensive in real terms and has the knock-on effect of calling into question the legitimacy of any Western-backed movement and creating anti-American sentiment in the region. The legacy of the Iraq war is far from dead, and policymakers must be mindful of that fact.
Lastly, President Obama should speak plainly about the challenges ahead and show that's he not pollyannaish about the risks still present in the region. Steps toward removing the root causes of terrorism do not mean the terror threat has ceased; far from it. It may increase as regimes that aligned themselves with U.S. anti-terror efforts, Such as Yemen, fail. The risk inherent in losing anti-terror partners is outweighed however by the risk of sticking by them for too long.
The president must also double down on calling out Iran's hypocrisy in seeking to claim the movement as a second Islamic awakening, even as it oppresses its own citizens at home. He must firmly rebut the violent crackdown in Syria and elsewhere. And eventually - even if not in this speech - he must put forward a plan for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lacking a resolution, America's relationship with the Arab world will always be fractured.
In short, President Obama has to explain how the Arab Spring is an opportunity for Arabs - with America's help - to rebuild their societies and begin to solve the problems that have vexed the region for so long. In the long run, facilitating that transformation is the best way to achieve American goals in the region.