Across the Middle East, and most dramatically in Egypt, Arab publics are embracing the most fundamental of American values—freedom and democracy. Yet America is being viewed with suspicion, not so much as an inspiration for, or ally of, freedom's march.It does not have to be this way, but first America will have to abandon its defensive crouch and clearly embrace this change as an historic opportunity.
America’s record of support for Arab autocrats cannot be erased. That extended episode reveals an uncomfortable truth about America’s role in the Middle East: American political values and American policy remain estranged. For too long, American policy has been based on two sides of the same coin. In the Arab world, the United States supports autocracies, some more brutal than others. In Israel and the territories it controls, America supports a democracy on paper, but one that denies basic rights and freedoms for Palestinians.
It is hard to see how this policy served American interests or made America safer. It is easy though to see how such a policy led to popular Arab resentment with America among the majority and recruitment to extremist anti-American violence in the margins.
The stark realization slowly dawning on Washington is that the United States cannot be on the right side of Arab democracy if it is on the wrong side of Palestinian freedom. Israel’s security and peace treaties are certainly compatible with a recalibrated American policy in the region, but not the continuation of occupation and inequality for Palestinians. This shouldn’t pose such a conundrum: the status quo has constrained the prospects for both the Arab and Jewish-Israeli publics. For all of its qualitative military edge and American backing, Israel does not feel secure, accepted or calm about its future.
Things get messy though when America fails to apply its own values to the Middle East. Some are advocating for precisely that values-free option, apparently believing that the adage of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East is not so much a lament as an aspiration. That translates into continued support for Arab autocracies or insisting on what might be called democracy minus for Arab countries in which the balance between military and civilian rule still rests primarily with the former, and by denying democratic Islamist parties the right to participate in peaceful politics.
Representative government in the Arab world will inevitably include a role for Islamists, something seized on by democracy’s opponents as a scare tactic to plead for the continued rule of the authoritarian devil we know. Those warning of a Khomeinist takeover are either desperately ignorant of Arab reality or intentionally misleading. Iran’s system of theocratic republicanism carries no attraction for the Arab pro-democracy movements. If anything, it is Turkey’s system of parliamentary citizen-state democracy, which is held up as a model.
There is another way to look at this region in transition and to plan for the future. The best option for getting this right and being credible is in allowing American policy to reflect American political values. America does have interests in the region: trade, energy, open shipping lanes-not to mention stability and peace. All are better served by an open and democratic Middle East.
Here are three ways to begin to reassert a foreign policy for the Middle East consistent with American values and interests:
First, support free, fair, open and inclusive elections, respect the results and emphasize civilian over military supremacy in decision-making and governance.
Second, embrace those who embrace political values consistent with our own. When millions of people are in the street demanding change, the US government must side with demands for freedom. Preferably this will be an American position even prior to the breakdown of the old order. Besides increasing U.S. credibility with the masses of young people who are destined to become tomorrow’s leaders, it also lends seriousness to American protestations when pro-democracy activists come under threat. The U.S. should reconsider the balance in aid to the region between civilian needs versus military hardware and training shifting emphasis away from the latter.
Finally, apply a common standard to Israel and Arab states alike. Ideally, deliver on freedom and equality for Palestinians alongside Jewish-Israelis. At a minimum, distance the U.S. from the occupation and discriminatory practices pursued by Israel, and embrace that part of Israeli society which shares American values. Israel’s security within the 1967 borders is a legitimate U.S. concern but the cost of America supporting, or facilitating, occupation and inequality will become unsustainably burdensome in an era of Arab democracy.
Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy co-direct the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and are editors of the Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com. They have previously advised the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams, respectively.