Freedom Agenda Redux

Transforming the Middle East—wisely this time. 

WHILE THE popular uprisings demanding freedom and democracy are inspiring, the ultimate outcome of the upheaval sweeping the Middle East is uncertain. It could result in the emergence of responsible, democratic states with which Washington can work. But it could also produce two undesirable outcomes. The first is chaos resulting in lawlessness, civil war or warlordism—which among other things could reduce the supply of energy and create hospitable territories for terrorists. The second is new threatening tyrannies.

Although the exact timing of the uprisings was unanticipated, the stagnant and polarized state of these societies made some sort of political and social unrest inevitable. The stifling authoritarianism and failed social and economic policies of the region’s regimes have rendered them illegitimate in the eyes of their people. The youth-dominated populations are becoming more educated, networked, aware of the outside world, and politically conscious. Yet their future prospects are bleak. Among Arabs, the sense of malaise has been exacerbated by the apparent contrast between their plight and the dynamism of non-Arab Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Israel, and even Iran. All this has opened a revolutionary gap between the aspirations of the populace and the realities of their regimes. Each uprising has inspired the next, and it is likely that the phenomenon will continue to spread to other repressive and corrupt regimes in the region.

Even as crisis management in response to breaking developments dominates the day-to-day agenda, the Middle East revolts call for the United States to craft a revised longer-term strategy for democracy promotion in the region—one that accounts for the underlying politics of different types of countries and is informed by the experience of the past decade.

The emergence of liberal-democratic governments would serve our national interests and our highest ideals. It is true that on issues such as Arab-Israeli peace, Arab public sentiment seems to favor policies more at odds with the United States than those adopted by friendly authoritarian leaders. Yet diplomatic engagement, democratic processes, and improvements on quality-of-life issues at home can temper calls for fundamental breaks from the status quo. Also, peace agreements with democracies are likely to be more lasting. Even in the absence of formal agreements, relations between liberal, market-oriented democracies tend to be peaceful—a reality that should assuage Israeli concerns of a significant regional reordering.

The strategic challenge for the United States is how to channel the wave of protests to enhance prospects for a liberal-democratic outcome. Given the realities on the ground, our best bet is to adopt a differentiated approach for systems in transition, authoritarian allies, and anti-American dictatorships.

Systems in Transition: The situations in Egypt, Tunisia, and Iraq involve promise and peril. Change is under way, but it is incomplete. There is a danger that interim leaders will not go through with fundamental democratic change and set the stage for new confrontation with reformers. Also, adversarial actors—such as Islamists and their outside patrons like the Iranian regime—see the futures of these countries as up for grabs. Their intelligence services and militant networks are likely to roll into action to exploit the political opening. It will require a concentrated U.S. effort to ensure that transitional figures satisfy popular aspirations and hostile states and extremists do not hijack the process.

The initial focus of the United States should be to work with all local actors—inside and outside the current power structure—to get the rules of the game right. The United States and its international partners should offer technical assistance in designing constitutional systems that incorporate all groups, catalyze bargaining and consensus building, and encourage the rise of policy-based (as opposed to identity-based) parties.

Part of the constitutional process involves determining electoral processes. Rather than calling for snap elections, we should help level the playing field between key political actors to ensure that better-organized extremists do not gain disproportionate influence early on. The timing should be set to ensure that all the important political forces participate and enjoy sufficient time to organize and mobilize support. New democratic movements need time to coalesce into effective parties. With their clandestine cadres and outside support, many illiberal groups have a head start that unduly amplifies their voices and momentum. The United States should be willing to provide operational funding to moderate and liberal political groups.

In order to counter efforts by adversarial actors to increase violence or discredit democratic change, Washington should work with national armies and other security institutions to prevent chaos. This should include intelligence cooperation to identify and thwart interference by countries such as Iran. The United States should help prevent security institutions from fragmenting, provided that they are willing to facilitate the transition to a new democratic order.

The United States should be prepared to assist new transitional regimes economically—to do better than the previous governments on jobs, education and health care. In the short term, we can help maintain supplies of basic commodities and prevent spikes in prices of food and other staples. We should also offer mutually beneficial trade benefits to countries headed toward democracy.