Saliba Sarsar and Hussein Ibish
The United States stands at the horns of a dilemma in its relationships with the Middle East. The hesitant or on-the-boundary response of the Obama administration to the frozen Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, the ouster of authoritarian Tunisian President Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali, the people’s uprising in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak (another autocrat), and opposition protests in Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere around the Arab World — all point toward the need for a new American strategy for the Middle East.

Historically, the United States advanced its interests in the region by reducing or eliminating Soviet influence during the Cold War; securing access to natural resources, especially oil; cultivating military and other alliances with key states; and cultivating its special relationship with the State of Israel. In most cases, business as usual was conducted, with the US investing much in dictatorships, while paying little attention to the aspirations and needs of the general populace. A classic example is the American close alliance with the Shah of Iran, which ultimately ushered the theocratic rule of first the Mullahs and now the Revolutionary Guards, the speeding up of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the recent decline in American influence in the Gulf.

In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and claims about “the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” the United States shifted gears by invading Iraq in 2003 and ousting its dictator Saddam Hussein, proclaiming our commitment to opposing tyrants and promoting democracy. Yet business as usual continued with other Arab countries continued, at a time when none of them had a passing grade on democracy. This is has been framed as either a contradiction between aspirational rhetoric and actual policies, or between the “short term interests” in stability, oil resources and Israeli security versus “long term interests” that include promoting American values of freedom and democracy in the Arab world in practice. Either way, there is a long and universally recognized gap between American policies towards governments and governance in the Arab world and our traditional ideals that has not served our interests well or enhanced our reputation with the peoples of the region.

The administration of George W. Bush rhetorically recognized this dilemma with frequent calls for the development of a “freedom agenda” in the Middle East. However, this agenda was noticeably absent from any major policy changes. And the main product of it, the “Greater Middle East Initiative,” proposal was poorly conceptualized, composed without any Arab input to speak of, slated for presentation at an international meeting at which neither Arab governments nor civil society would be present, and ultimately faded into memory. Its one-size-fits-all approach and aura of outside intervention without consultation doomed the approach and interest in its ideas in Washington seemed to vanish with the rise of the insurgency in Iraq and its implications for the administration’s assumptions about how best to promote change in the region.

President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 was significant as it raised the hopes of Muslims, Arabs, and others by calling for greater understanding between peoples, rejection of extremist violence, respect for basic human rights, elimination of nuclear weapons, and mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians. Words might inspire for a time, but can also ring hollow if not backed by policies reflecting a real desire for positive change and that promote that goal through actions. In apparent contrast to Bush administration rhetoric about a “freedom agenda,” the Obama administration has emphasized rebuilding alliances, out-stretched hands, diplomacy, ending rather than starting wars, and, above all, the quest for stability and conflict resolution (especially between Israel and the Palestinians). As events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are showing, this approach has not proved any more successful in placing the United States on the side of the Arab peoples and their aspirations or in securing either well-managed reforms or regional stability.

While continuing to promote its vital interests in the Middle East, our country clearly needs to develop a new American strategy, which will hopefully help engender a new, more democratic and stable Arab world and Middle East. The following principles should be central to this new approach, if events are not to overtake us completely and make it much more difficult for the United States to promote both our interests and our values in the region:

• Communicate American intentions and policies accurately and clearly, and avoid reserving pressure for real reforms to private meetings, out of the public perception. Conveying a consistent message on American expectation of its allies would counteract widespread misconceptions, misunderstandings, and conspiracy theories about the US role in the region. Leaks, too, would thereby be rendered largely irrelevant.

• Balance principles with pragmatism by imparting a vision for a better tomorrow and simultaneously serving in practice to bring freedom and hope to peoples who have been stuck in conflict, corruption, oppression, and poverty for generations. This must apply not only to the Arab states, Turkey and Iran, but also to Israeli policies, especially in the occupied Palestinian territories. Even-handedness will be a key perception if our country is to play a more positive and effective role in coming years.

• Put forward a broad conception of democracy, one that includes fair, free, and frequent elections, in addition to the other essential building blocks: good governance, transparency and separation of power within governments; freedom of speech, press, and religion; basic human rights for individual citizens, minority groups and women; human development; and economic freedom.

• Emphasize human security rather than military prowess. When unimpeded, human security makes possible freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to live in dignity.

• Link economic assistance and military aid to the ability of governments to achieve country-specific goals, mainly concrete and transparent democratic improvements and economic measures aimed at improving the quality of life and opportunities for the general public. Ensure that our economic assistance reaches its intended target and is heavily complemented by public diplomacy and cultural outreach that also impact people’s daily lives.

• Create an international consensus and a coalition for moderation and peace, one that is perceived, insofar as possible, to serve the interests of all parties as they themselves define those interests. Dictates or dominance, not to mention invasions, will likely backfire in reform and democracy promotion, and are more likely promote disintegration and instability.

• Press hard to resolve the region’s endemic issues, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, based on two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in security, peace, and prosperity. Ending this conflict, as the American Task Force on Palestine has repeatedly argued, will enhance American national security and strike a powerful blow at the ideology of terrorism and extremism, improve American ability to further democracy and other American values in the region and around the world, and provide significant economic opportunities for both Americans and the region. Arabs and Muslims around the world will be far more likely to see the United States as a force that takes their interests, and their dignity, seriously, and that is sincere in urging the promotion of democracy, if the onerous and long-standing occupation that began in 1967 is finally ended, especially if our country is seen as playing the key role in achieving that long-sought goal.

Vacillation between principles and pragmatism leads to confusion and inconsistency in foreign policy application, and, even more, to perceptions of our intentions and our commitment to our founding values of freedom and democracy. Untempered, seemingly unconditional and purely pragmatic, alliances with regimes that dehumanize their citizens creates a loss of credibility, as does our special relationship with Israel as long as the occupation continues with no clear end in sight. Lest we forget: leaders are transitory, citizens are permanent. It is, ultimately, the Arab and other Middle Eastern peoples with whom we must develop truly lasting alliances and friendships.

If the United States is to have a more effective and consistent foreign policy in the Middle East, our strategy should be anchored in basic American values and in equity, symmetry, and transparency, and be both people-centered and performance-based. Only then will President Obama’s statement, “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal… [and] the United States will stand up for them everywhere” ring as true, and produce as much trust, as it needs to.

Saliba Sarsar is professor of political science and associate vice president for global initiatives at Monmouth University,  Secretary, HCEF Board of Directors,  and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Task Force on Palestine. Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.