Recent events in the Middle-East have brought to light several issues regarding U.S. foreign policy as it relates to the region. Interestingly enough, the authors of the UN’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report predicted this with what now might be seen as a supernaturally prophetic warning:
If the repressive situation in Arab countries today continues, intensified social conflict is likely to follow. In the absence of peaceful and effective mechanisms to address injustice and achieve political alternation, some might be tempted to embrace violent protest, with the risk of internal disorder. (19)
To look at these issues objectively, there is a need to examine the history of the region and its politics to dispel some myths many westerners believe to be fact. By putting to rest the myths, and looking at the region in a historical context, it becomes easier to explain the recent uprisings and protests. It is also imperative to look at how past involvement by the U.S. has helped shape the region into what it is. After having looked at the aforementioned aspects related to the recent uprisings it will be evident that the direction of U.S. foreign policy regarding the region needs to be one of cautious promotion of democratic ideals, regardless of whether those ideals are exercised by way of a secular or religious regime, through an ethical, consistent, long-term plan of global constructivism, modernization, and diplomatic pressure for more transparent governance, where the focus is on the Middle-East.
The first myth that needs dispelled is that Islamic cultures are either too young or too based in tribal custom to be successful at democracy. It will not come as a surprise that one of the major proponents of this myth is Israeli nationalists who are right to be cautious of new, independent, democratic, Islamic nations. Israel’s claims to be the only true democracy in the region, regardless of its policies toward the Palestinians and the West Bank, raises some eyebrows in the West, and has raised eyebrows, ire, distrust, and hate in the Arab countries around it. This myth has even been supported by some of controlling regimes in the region, especially Saudi Arabia. Forgotten, however, is that in the early twentieth century, there were widespread Islamic movements toward democracy, from the Ottoman Empire, through the Caucasus, and into Asia. Charles Kurzman, in the Journal of Democracy, April 2010, states “The two most influential Shia scholars of the era sent telegrams calling opposition to constitutionalism un-Islamic” (61). Kurzman goes on to explain that it was not Arab culture or Islamic religion that caused the democratizing movements to fail, but
…secular authoritarians… Mustafa Kemal in the Ottoman Empire, the Bakhtiyaris and later Reza Khan in Iran, and European colonial authorities elsewhere—who dismissed parliaments, shuttered newspapers, and suppressed prodemocratic Islamic movements (61).
One belief, however, which may or may not be myth, is that tribal Arab culture is antithetical to democratic processes, not the Islamic faith. Larry Diamond, also in the Journal of Democracy, January 2010, tells us that of the Arab countries, only Lebanon has ever been democratic and had, “[a] significant records of extending reasonably democratic political rights to their citizens”, and that was “before the civil war that began in 1975” (94). It might be surprising to note that surveys taken in the region have found that there is extremely strong support for democracy. According to Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao in “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy”,
…the percentage of respondents who agree that democracy is a "very good" or "fairly good" way to govern their country is very high…It ranges from 93 percent in Algeria all the way up to 98 percent in Egypt. Among these respondents, a substantial majority in each case rates democracy as a "very good" rather than merely a "fairly good" way to govern their country. (87)
If the operable assumption is that tribalism, rentier status, and external geopolitical forces came together in a manner that is delaying democracy to the Arab world, and not that Arab culture itself cannot coexist with democracy, it seems easy to see how those puzzle pieces fit together nicely, and are still entangled in a way that will either continue to delay or even deny democracy to the majority Arab states.
The most powerful, arguably, are the external geopolitical forces which have served to prop up and support autocratic regimes. The United States has provided billions of dollars in aid, both for military and humanitarian purposes, to the leaders of the region for two primary reasons. First, the cold war strategy of both the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact countries were to develop buffer nations, and develop friendly relations with countries strategically important in terms of access to natural resources: namely oil. Second, in order to maintain a level of stability required for lower cost access to this natural resource, a balancing act was required to keep the peace between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. This balancing act was in large part possible with the massive influx of cold, hard cash which was, in large part, a tool used by the authoritarian regimes to exert control, sometimes brutally, over the populace, and maintain power. The entire process was one that required the U.S. to explicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of the autocratic regimes, which de-legitimized the democratic desires of the people being ruled by the autocrats: a difficult, hypocritical position for a democratic republic to find itself in, even if the justification for it was national security and the utilitarian greater good of saving lives by minimizing the chances for civil wars or mass uprisings in the region.
Recent unrest in the region has been fueled by several factors. Aladdin Elaasar, in his article “Unsteady Egypt: Is Egypt Stable?”, published in the Middle East Quarterly, attributes a youth-bulge, extreme levels of unemployment, rapidly increasing food prices, the fast growing gap between the rich and poor, increasingly corrupt governments and their brutal responses to dissidents, as the primary causes (69). It would be a mistake to discount, as mentioned earlier, the majority belief that democracy would be the best form of government. The subject people of these authoritarian regimes, it would seem, have had enough. The self-immolation of a long unemployed college graduate in Tunisia was the spark that lit the uprisings. From Tunisia, the protest movement spread east to other Arab nations, eventually causing problems in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria to name just a few.
Currently, only Tunisia and Egypt are in the midst of transformation from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system of governance, their respective rulers having abdicated or resigned their positions of authority. Libya on the other hand is embroiled in what can only be described at this point as a civil war, with the revolutionaries being provided with a modicum of support by NATO and even Arab League forces, with the approval of both the UN and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). A problem faced by supporters of democratization of the Middle East, especially the citizens of these troubled nations, is that there is a history of rulers doing what they have seen work for other rulers trying to strengthen their positions of authority. Dominic Dudley in "Encouraging Public Participation" notes
Governments in the region often follow each other's lead. If some countries are able to peel back political reforms and increase their hold on the country and there's no consequences for them, then other authoritarian governments will follow. (28)
For this reason, supporters of Arab democratization cannot afford to allow Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi to maintain his autocracy by defeating the rebel opposition being led by his former interior minister, Younis al-Obaidi.
The case for intervention in Libya was based on a fragile “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which received unanimous support at the 2005 World Summit. Stewart Patrick states in his article for Foreign Affairs Magazine, “A New Lease on Life for Humanitarianism”,
The endorsement of the no-fly zone by the Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Gulf Cooperation Council was also crucial. None of these bodies has ever lifted a finger against regional tyrants, but this time their members made a different calculation, presumably reflecting a collective distaste for Qaddafi and their vulnerability to democratic aspirations sweeping the region. (1)
If NATO and the Arab League fumble the mission and Gaddafi retains his power, it will likely crush the prospects of any further democratizing movement in the region. Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, and every other authoritarian regime will know exactly what needs to be done to maintain power: slaughter the dissident rebels and protesters.What can the U.S. do to maximize the successful chances for democratizing efforts in the Middle East, while simultaneously maintaining some semblance of stability, access to strategic resources, and meeting its national security needs? The first problem is one of trust. The U.S. has a severe trust deficit based on its past actions in the Middle East. President Barack Obama has admitted the U.S. policies in the past have not been conducive to democracy in a manner consistent with American core values. What many don’t remember is that President George W. Bush also admitted as much. Both presidents acknowledged past “wrongs” in an attempt to garner trust. Unfortunately, it will take much more than words spoken over the past few years to undo decades of interventionist policy and erase the hypocrisy shown by U.S. willingness to implicitly assist autocratic regimes in the subjugation of their citizens, and to secure strategic resources at the expense of human suffering.
Trust is earned over time and experience, and a good argument can be made for how well the current administration has handled Tunisia and Egypt. While that is a small start, it is a start nonetheless. One other item that bears mentioning regarding trust is the unintended benefit of the recent Wikileaks documents of diplomatic correspondence and notes. The documents show that the U.S. State Department was not nearly as disingenuous or duplicitous as many in the region thought, and thanks to the power of the internet, the people in the region saw just how corrupt their own leaders were. In comparison, the U.S. looked relatively beneficent.
Regardless of the outcome in Libya, it can also be argued that as far as building trust with the global community, the U.S. once again did the right thing. It is not acting unilaterally, which has been one reason the U.S. has historically been seen by many as imperialistic and exploitative. By acting in accord with UN agreements and by gaining common cause with the Arab League, the U.S. is, in this case, not likely to be seen as the primary instigator in a military action against a smaller and substantially weaker nation. It helps that strategically, the E.U. has a more vested interest in the Libya conflict than the U.S. does. The U.S. needs to continue on the path of joint operations, in support roles as much as possible, to continue to garner trust that its actions are consistent with its stated ideology of liberal democratic rule.
While trust is necessary if U.S. actions are to be seen by the world, and especially the Arab people, as a force for democracy, more is needed. Iraq needs to be highly visible as an Arab democracy that works effectively, without disenfranchising any sectarian or tribal groups. Libya needs to be successful in that, at the very least, Gaddafi needs to be deposed, killed, or otherwise removed from power. Tunis and Egypt need diplomatic pressure placed on the transitional powers to incorporate into their constitutions those things that will help secure freedom and security for their citizens, again, like Iraq, without disenfranchising any sectarian or tribal groups. The U.S. needs to step away from a policy of non-conditionality, and explicitly state that the long-term policy goals are consistent with the balanced goals of security and self-determination for all people, and use both positive and negative conditions as part of the diplomatic arsenal openly, while admitting the ability to do so is dependent on the military and economic strength of a nation that prides itself on being able to do so much to help so many.
In the hopeful event that Iraq becomes a successful democracy, the U.S. can and should avoid if at all possible, for as long as possible, an official acknowledgement that the ends have justified the means regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom. Fully embracing the World Summit’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine in conjunction with a doctrine of non-unilateral intervention, except in cases of imminent threat to national security, will also serve to allay fears of U.S. imperialism while giving credibility to the new foreign policy objectives. By being a much more vocal proponent for the U.S. ideology within the UN and other international governing bodies, and showing that the U.S. is not patronizing enough to see itself as the father of an unruly family, represented by the other nations, but is instead a brother, working for common goals, while not ceding or sacrificing its own national security, the U.S. will become, over time, not merely the de facto hegemon, but the de facto hegemon that is supported in its position by a global majority.