It’s time for the U.S. to take a fresh look at its relationship with the Middle East. The “Tunisian Revolution,” the “Egyptian Popular Uprising,” and the demonstrations in Jordan, Yemen, West Bank, and Gaza, among others, ought to be taken as a wake-up call.
The U.S.’s response to the crisis in the Middle East was hesitant at first but is now taking shape and becoming more constructive. By simultaneously supporting the Egyptian people in their struggle for freedom and urging Egyptian leaders to initiate a transition to democracy, the Obama administration is standing up for cherished American values.
However, the U.S. government cannot stop at the tip of the pyramid; it needs to dig deeper. In order to be better prepared for the continuing challenges facing Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, U.S. leaders need to consider several basic ideas.
First, democracy is a generational project; it cannot be achieved by quick fixes or superimposed from above. Promoting it necessitates educating citizens in democratic practices that go beyond fair, free, and frequent elections. Good governance, civil society enhancements, and the end of corruption are key elements. Egypt’s democratization will take years – if not decades – to mature, and the U.S.’s patience and support will be essential in actualizing it.
Second, there are risks to advancing democracy, as there is always the danger that those who are desperate to control power will hijack the emerging democratic system. In 1992, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward P. Djerejian drew attention to this dilemma: “We are suspect of those who would use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance. While we believe in the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ we do not support ‘one person, one vote, one time.’” Egyptians must take extra care in making their electoral choices so as to prevent an Iran- or Hamas-style regime from emerging.
Third, standing for democracy and freedom in one locale necessitates standing for them the world over. In his Jan. 28 remarks on Egypt, Obama explained, “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” If the U.S. is to be consistent in its application of foreign policy then it must reconsider its friendships with, and interests in, countries that dehumanize or disempower their inhabitants. If U.S. leaders continue to do “business as usual” with these countries, the double standard that they expose will create a credibility gap.
Fourth, things like economic and financial interests, oil, military assistance and alliances, and ties to elites in the Middle East cannot be divorced from the reality of people’s daily lives and aspirations. Top-down politics and policies and bottom-up initiatives must be synchronized or made to complement each other. The U.S. would be wise to reach out more vigorously to civil society organizations, democratic opposition groups, and the media as it carries out its foreign policy.
Fifth, while military power provides security and is often dominant in Middle Eastern politics, human security is crucial, as it makes it possible for people to live with dignity, free from want and fear. Creating a coalition for moderation contributes to the culture of peace and can bring about internal and external stability as well as prosperity.
If the U.S. is to maintain its position as a champion of universal rights and smooth transitions to democracy, it must press hard to end the Israeli occupation and eradicate the fear that has gripped both Israeli and Palestinian societies for decades. A doable and just solution would be to have Israel and Palestine – two sovereign states – living side by side in security, peace, and prosperity. As the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) suggests, this solution would mean freedom for the Palestinians, peace for Israel, and enhanced national security for the United States.
Far from wavering, the U.S. must balance its principles and pragmatism – using its values and influence to engage others in serious democratic reform as it pursues its short-term and strategic goals. While obstacles abound, the careful guidance that the U.S. provides in an effort to generate positive change will receive much good will and trust, and will facilitate internal, regional, and international cooperation.
Dr. 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.