Arab Spring

A barren tree, once full of life
Stands leafless, brown ice in gloom
A barren tree, once full of strife
Stands not a spark, not a flower in bloom
A barren tree, once full of promise
Stands in sorrow, a promise but for tomorrow
As for today, not a leaf dares there stay

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Where Wilsonian Idealism and Realpolitik Meet

The United States faces formidable challenges to its national interests in the Middle East today and in the decades to come. If the United States is to continue playing its powerful role in global politics, it must consolidate its influence in this strategic and central region. It is safe to say that the United States has alienated the Middle East’s citizens with its recent policies and that even the friendly regimes cannot work with us without compromising their already threadbare legitimacy. Monumental tasks such as fighting terrorism, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and securing energy resources would be unachievable without reliable regional allies. While Israel is a strong ally, its use in driving US foreign policy in the region is limited as was evident in the two Iraq wars and now in the tense standoff with Iran.

Historically, the United States like its colonial predecessors has bought the needed support in the Middle East or coerced it out of the ruling elites. While this strategy of supporting pliant dictators and monarchs has worked for the United States and its interests in the region, it has also delivered astonishing setbacks, the epitome of which is the September 11 attacks on US soil. The realist calculus propelling our foreign policy in the Arab world has led to the aid of friendly regimes and the containment of hostile or even independent ones, unconditional support for Israel, and the intermittent strikes against regimes which were thought to harbor terrorists such as Libya, Sudan and Iraq. This Realpolitik was recklessly abandoned by the second Bush administration precisely because of the September 11 attacks, which made it abundantly clear that terrorism has become a global phenomenon with dire ramifications. To address the terror predicament, the root causes of terror must be addressed.

The root causes of terror are evident, Palestine and a dearth of democracy. Any opinion poll in the region before September 11, 2001 or since will show strong opposition to US policy vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine and its support of Arab dictators. And despite his initial rhetoric of the “they hate us because we’re free” variety, President Bush was clear about what he thought in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003: the democratization strategy “is to help change the conditions that give rise to extremism and terror, especially in the broader Middle East.” Changing the map of the Middle East through democracy was conjured up by many analysts and administration officials as a persuasive justification for the Iraq war, mostly after the invasion showed there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam and Al-Qaeda would have been unlikely bedfellows anyway. And thus the invasion of Iraq was justified, after the fact, by a strong push of democratization that was strongly resisted by the ruling elites in the Middle East.

The United States’ pressure on the regional dictators worked. Egypt held parliamentary elections, and Mubarak even amended the constitution to allow, incredibly, a multi-candidate presidential campaign in May 2005. Elections were held in the Palestinian territories, for the Egyptian parliament and throughout the region, even Saudi Arabia allowed local councils to be elected for the first time. This democratization effort ground to a halt, however, as the results of these elections came out. Hamas wins in Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood quintuples its seats in the Egyptian Parliament. The Bush administration weakened by the Republican Party’s defeat at the Congressional elections, worried about an assertive Iran, disoriented by an Iraq mired in conflict, and chastised by the Realpolitik paleoconservatives retreated from its ideological machinations to the relief of the Arab dictators and the chagrin of Arab civil society.

As it were, the neoconservatives were right about one thing: democracy in the Middle East is an important American goal per se. More importantly, however, is that it is a realistic and effective approach in fighting terror and gaining credibility with the citizens of the region. The problem was the execution. Bringing democracy to Iraq by an American invasion was destined to fail. Even the most homogenous and pro-American country would have not democratized easily in those conditions, let alone a country with many religions and ethnicities and whose population is very distrustful of American intentions. Democratization of many other Arab countries would have been far easier and much less fraught with danger. Pressure on Egypt, Jordan and Morocco would have yielded much better dividends as these regimes are largely dependent on the United States for support. The wave of democratization efforts in the Middle East after the invasion of Iraq would have been much more effective were it not for the invasion of Iraq, which empowered Iran, destabilized Iraq and sapped American credibility throughout the Arab world. Ironically, the neoconservatives thwarted their own agenda. The invasion of Iraq made it much harder for the US to support democratization efforts in the region.

The United States must develop a strategy to maintain its influence in the Middle East without expending an exorbitant price in blood and treasure. Its goals of defeating terrorism, neutralizing Iran, and securing the energy resources of the region are achievable but need long-term engagement for an enduring solution not quick, cosmetic fixes. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promoting Arab democracy will go a long way to accomplishing these goals. Standing on the right side of history with democracy, the United States will earn valuable dividends from Arab civil society and future democratic governments indebted to the United States. Hamas’ and Hizbullah’s raison d’etre will vanish with the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict and so will Iran’s influence in Palestine and Lebanon. Here, at this moment in history, Realpolitik and Wilsonian idealism intersect. It is both in the United States’ interest and its moral obligation to support democracy in the Middle East and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a rising China and a resurgent Russia eye the Middle East for an opportunity to step in, the United States must actualize economical and expedient avenues to maintain its prominence in the region.


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