How should the U.S. re­spond to up­ris­ings in the Mid­dle East?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

STEVEN HEYDEMANN Vice pres­i­dent at the U.S. In­sti­tute of Peace and spe­cial ad­viser to the Mus­lim World Ini­tia­tive

Arab regimes are reel­ing from the af­ter­shocks of events in Tu­nisia. Gov­ern­ments in Egypt and Ye­men are the fo­cus of mass protests ex­press­ing the anger that many Arab cit­i­zens feel to­ward their lead­ers. Sur­prises are pos­si­ble, but it is most likely that the Egyp­tian and Ye­meni regimes will sur­vive these “days of rage.”

Af­ter the trun­cheons have done their work, what are U.S. op­tions? The ad­min­is­tra­tion has an ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity to rein­vig­o­rate sup­port for demo­cratic re­form in the Arab world. For decades, sup­port­ers of re­form have strug­gled to make a con­vinc­ing case that Arab democ­racy is in Amer­ica’s in­ter­est. Fear of Is­lam and a strong pref­er­ence for sta­bil­ity have long trumped ar­gu­ments about the dam­age to U.S. in­ter­ests of sup­port­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes. The re­cent up­ris­ings demon­strate just how mis­guided these cal­cu­la­tions have been. U.S. in­ter­ests are poorly served by regimes that have lost the con­fi­dence of their peo­ple. Il­le­git­i­macy and in­sta­bil­ity are now linked; the con­nec­tion pro­vides com­pelling jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a more as­sertive U.S. ap­proach to po­lit­i­cal re­form in the Arab world.

The United States can help the re­gion’s tran­si­tion to democ­racy by ac­knowl­edg­ing the depth of anger among Arab publics, mak­ing ex­plicit the link be­tween U.S. in­ter­ests and the le­git­i­macy of regimes, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing force­fully to our Arab al­lies that cur­rent gov­ern­ments will not over­come the cri­sis of le­git­i­macy that is driv­ing their cit­i­zens into the streets with­out fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion — through pro­cesses that are them­selves demo­cratic, peace­ful and in­clu­sive. Such an ap­proach does not re­quire the iso­la­tion or aban­don­ment of cur­rent regimes, but it would sig­nal clearly that Amer­i­can in­ter­ests and Arab democ­racy are now, fi­nally, aligned.

AARON DAVID MILLER Pub­lic pol­icy fel­low at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars; for­mer Arab-Is­raeli peace negotiator for the State Depart­ment Mr. Pres­i­dent, You smartly steered clear of the ide­o­log­i­cal free­dom agenda of your pre­de­ces­sor. And now, in one of his­tory’s cru­eler ironies, you’re con­fronted with a home­grown free­dom agenda in Tu­nisia and Egypt and maybe else­where, with im­pact over time that may be far greater than the pol­i­tics of Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you’re smart and lucky, you won’t make an al­ready com­pli­cated sit­u­a­tion worse, and you might even do some good. Re­mem­ber:

You can’t con­trol his­tory. The Mid­dle East is lit­tered with the re­mains of great pow­ers that thought they could im­pose their will on small tribes. The changes loosed in the Arab world are pri­mar­ily driven by lo­cal fac­tors, and they’ll have to play them­selves out.

Don’t aban­don your friends. Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak may be an au­thor­i­tar­ian, but since 1981 your pre­de­ces­sors and you have deemed him vi­tal to Amer­i­can in­ter­ests. Be care­ful what kind of sig­nals you send un­til you have a much bet­ter sense of who or what will come af­ter him. The worst out­come of Egyp­tian un­rest would be a Mubarak who crushes the op­po­si­tion and re­sents the United States be­cause he be­lieves that you wanted him on the next flight to Paris.

This will be a long movie. It’s driven by deepseated di­vi­sions in the Arab and Mus­lim world, first be­tween the haves and have-nots over eco­nomic re­sources and sec­ond be­tween those who can par­tic­i­pate in gov­ern­ing their so­ci­eties and those who can­not. You will need a strat­egy, but don’t rush to come up with one; it will prob­a­bly be wrong. For now, loudly pro­claim the im­por­tance of Amer­i­can val­ues such as re­spect for hu­man rights, peace­ful demon­stra­tions, rule of law, good gov­er­nance. But keep your dis­tance un­til you have a much greater sense of where these changes are headed.

HUS­SEIN AGHA and ROBERT MAL­LEY Agha is se­nior as­so­ci­ate mem­ber of St. Antony’s Col­lege, Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity; Mal­ley is Mid­dle East pro­gram di­rec­tor at the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group and was spe­cial as­sis­tant to the pres­i­dent for Arab-Is­raeli af­fairs from 1998 to 2001

Decades of U.S. pol­icy in the Mid­dle East are com­ing back to haunt Washington. As a re­sult, the United States now faces a bat­tle it can­not win.

To con­tinue sup­port­ing un­pop­u­lar rulers would fur­ther alien­ate those who are most likely to as­sume power in the fu­ture. Openly sid­ing with the street would strain ties with regimes that might sur­vive the un­rest and whose help the United States still needs; sig­nal to Amer­ica’s re­main­ing friends that its sup­port is fickle; pre­cip­i­tate the rise of forces hos­tile to U.S. in­ter­ests; and do lit­tle to sway demon­stra­tors who will see in Amer­ica’s mid­night con­ver­sion hypocrisy and op­por­tunism.

Washington can cut its losses and be­gin turn­ing the page in its re­la­tions with the Arab world. That will have to wait. For now, it means as­sum­ing a low pro­file and re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to be­come part of the story. That hardly is an ex­cit­ing agenda, but the United States could do far worse than do very lit­tle.

MA­RINA OT­T­AWAY Di­rec­tor of the Mid­dle East pro­gram at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace

Washington’s re­ac­tion to the grow­ing un­rest will have al­most no im­pact on what hap­pens in the Arab world, which will be de­ter­mined by do­mes­tic fac­tors — the pro­test­ers’ de­ter­mi­na­tion, the gov­ern­ments’ re­sponse, the will­ing­ness of

po­lice and army units to use force against demon­stra­tors. Pro­test­ers, who view the United States as the his­tor­i­cal prop for Arab au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes, will not heed Washington’s calls to avoid vi­o­lence. And regimes that have been au­thor­i­tar­ian for decades will not sud­denly see the wis­dom of lib­er­al­iza­tion be­cause of state­ments from Washington.

But what the United States says af­fects its stand­ing in the re­gion. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s at­tempt to strike a bal­ance be­tween not of­fend­ing in­cum­bent regimes and re­fur­bish­ing its im­age by send­ing a mes­sage that Washington wants re­forms is fail­ing — mes­sages are cir­cu­lat­ing on the In­ter­net to the ef­fect that the United States is once again sup­port­ing authoritarianism. Washington must get off the fence and choose whether it wants to sup­port democ­racy, and thus be on the side of Arab publics en­raged by decades of re­pres­sion, or whether it wants to con­tinue sup­port­ing regimes that have been re­pres­sive for decades in the name of ill-de­fined strate­gic in­ter­ests. It can­not do both.

AN­DREW AL­BERT­SON Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Project on Mid­dle East Democ­racy from 2007 to 2010

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has be­gun tak­ing many of the right steps al­ready. Aware of the dangers for U.S. in­ter­ests posed by gov­ern­ments that re­sist demo­cratic par­tic­i­pa­tion even as their peo­ple be­come more ed­u­cated, af­flu­ent and con­nected to the out­side world, it has re­peat­edly raised with Arab lead­ers the need for com­pre­hen­sive re­forms. Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton pre­sciently warned re­gional for­eign min­is­ters two weeks ago, “ Those who cling to the sta­tus quo may be able to hold back the full im­pact of their coun­tries’ prob­lems for a lit­tle while, but not for­ever.”

In the wake of Fri­day’s events in Egypt, the ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to dou­ble down on its call for po­lit­i­cal re­forms across the re­gion. In Tu­nisia and Egypt, the ad­min­is­tra­tion should seize the op­por­tu­nity to sup­port full-scale tran­si­tions to democ­racy. New sub­si­dies or cabi­net shuf­fles aren’t enough. What hap­pened on the streets of Cairo was not a bread riot but a le­git­i­macy riot. And force­ful crack­downs rep­re­sent a big roll of the dice — for regimes and for Washington, to the ex­tent that the United States is per­ceived to be com­plicit in such vi­o­lence.

Peo­ple in the re­gion want to be cit­i­zens — pro­tag­o­nists in their na­tional po­lit­i­cal life, rather than sub­jects who pas­sively take what the govern­ment gives. They want an end to min­istries, par­ties and po­lice forces that op­er­ate above the law and fos­ter en­demic cor­rup­tion. The United States should quickly press al­lies such as Ye­men, Jor­dan and Morocco to drop con­straints on po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, con­vene broad po­lit­i­cal di­a­logues, and place the high­est pre­mium on trans­par­ent and ef­fec­tive gov­er­nance. The best guar­an­tee of sta­bil­ity is par­tic­i­pa­tion, plu­ral­ism and progress.


Pro­test­ers stand­ing on top of army ve­hi­cles in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Fri­day.

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