Misdiagnosing the Middle East

Why the neocon-liberal alliance's cure-all for the Arab world will fail.

There is a dangerous consensus about the Middle East based on the assumption that authoritarian politics are the root of instability, violence and anti-Americanism. Thus the United States is obliged, for both its own security and the furtherance of its values, to encourage democracy and liberal, market-oriented economic reform in the region. In other words, the United States has to change the domestic politics of the region’s states. There might not be agreement about the means to be used—though the Libyan adventure indicates that Democrats are not completely averse to the use of force—but the diagnosis of the problem is the same. The president is fully aboard this consensus that has come to unite much of the American political class since the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is a belief system that unites Bush Republicans and Clinton Democrats, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, Charles Krauthammer and Thomas Friedman, Paul Wolfowitz and Samantha Power. When such disparate people agree on something, you just know it has to be wrong.

Our public debate is not open to the alternative argument that our problems in the region might stem more from our own deep military and political involvement there rather than from local pathologies. But, for the sake of argument, let us assume that this consensus is correct in its diagnosis of the problems the United States faces in the region. Its prescription—even more direct American involvement in the Middle East—assumes that Washington can have a meaningful role in directing domestic political change there. That is where our political class is woefully misguided.

Consider the goals President Obama set out in his May 19 speech. The United States is going to “promote reform across the region and…support transitions to democracy.” We will oppose “an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others and to hold power through coercion and not consent.” We will “work to see that this spirit [of religious tolerance and freedom] prevails.” We will “insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men.” We will support prosperity by “ensuring financial stability, promoting [economic] reform and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy.” That commits the United States to “tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress—the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect.”

Whew! Might as well commit to parting the Red Sea to encourage Egyptian trade with the Arab East.

Can the United States really do these things? Will we like what we see in the region if we do? These kinds of means-ends calculations are not part of the post-9/11, post-Arab Spring American approach to the region. If it must be done, we will do it. But the evidence so far is that we as a country are extremely bad at changing the domestic politics of Middle Eastern countries, and that once we get involved in these efforts, they tend to end up in places we would not have imagined when we started.

Consider the ancient history of the George W. Bush administration. I realize that was eons ago, but we might learn something from its experience. It launched a war with Iraq to turn that country into a stable, democratic American ally in the Middle East, with a market economy, the rule of law and legally ensured women’s rights. How did that turn out? The democratic forms are there, but is Iraq well governed? Is it stable? Do good liberals lead it? These results were obtained with the investment of an eight-year military occupation, the cost of thousands of American (and tens of thousands, if not more, Iraqi) lives and nearly a trillion U.S. dollars. All that effort for the results we see. This should be a cautionary tale about the inability of the United States to reengineer the politics of the Middle East. But it seems to have been forgotten. The Bush administration introduced the Middle East Partnership Initiative and a series of other reform programs to leverage our financial aid and trade to the region in order to promote economic openness and market economic reform. And how is that working? The Bush administration also forthrightly pushed for democratic reform in the region, and Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

The Obama administration now wants to walk the same path, but it is unclear why it expects to be able to direct regional events more effectively than its predecessor. It does not have the means that the Bush administration brought to bear in the region. Bush sent armies; Obama sends an airforce, and reluctantly. Bush spent hundreds of billions; Obama offers Egypt $1 billion (while Saudi Arabia offers it $4 billion). The fall of friendly authoritarians opens up the political arena, to be sure, but such openness benefits the best-organized groups. Those groups happen to be Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the United States has had no dialogue for decades. We had leverage over Mubarak; we will have much less over an elected Egyptian government. We hope to promote “Washington consensus” economic policies, but the two Arab states that went the furthest in adopting market-reform policies were Tunisia and Egypt. It is not clear why Arab leaders, new or old, elected or authoritarian, would want to follow the policy path of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

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