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.
Finally, we should not forget Iraq. Though the country has completed the main aspects of democratic transition, Iraq continues to need U.S. attention in securing its democratic institutions. The United States should assist Iraq in dealing with security problems, implementing the recent agreement on power sharing, improving the provision of government services to the population and making progress on dealing with corruption.
Authoritarian Allies: In order to stave off further unrest that could lead to anarchy or gains for anti-American forces, the United States should assist friendly governments in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Bahrain, and the Gulf countries to evolve into accountable governments such as constitutional monarchies, paralleling the transitions experienced in many European states. Saudi leaders will likely be the most reluctant to go down this path, which suggest that the United States should focus first on the other states. The situation in Bahrain is promising, where key leaders of the opposition are calling for a constitutional monarchy.
As part of a transition plan, ruling regimes should open up space for political organization, enabling groups to mobilize support and develop independent media. Educational reforms should encourage critical thinking. Programs to promote increased employment, the rule of law and expanding provision of health care should be bolstered. Security cooperation with the United States should incentivize local security forces to play a supporting role in a stable transition. The plans should culminate in a phased transfer of governmental powers to elected parliaments as these bodies mature.
There should be a complementary economic program to strengthen the social base necessary for a stable transition. Formal titles should be given for land and businesses in the informal sector, giving a broader cross-section of society a stake in the new order. Licensing and other barriers to entry in various economic sectors should be loosened to foster entrepreneurialism. Banks should be encouraged to make capital available to small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Anti-American Authoritarian or Totalitarian Dictatorships: Hostile regimes, such as Libya, Syria, and Iran pose a special challenge. They have demonstrated a willingness to use force in a sustained manner against opposition groups. Beyond their borders, Tehran and Damascus are a threat to the entire process of democratic change in the Middle East. They want to exploit the current situation to unravel states friendly to the United States. As a result, Washington should put pressure on them in ways that will turn their attention inward.
In Libya, President Obama rightly called for Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster. The administration deserves praise for winning support for UN Security Council sanctions and referrals of Qaddafi and his senior lieutenants to the International Criminal Court. Qaddafi’s defeat is vitally important; it will show that the process of change will not unseat just friends of the West. We should accelerate our engagement with opposition leaders to establish a political authority in liberated areas that can provide for emergency relief. These political bodies can serve as a foundation for a post-Qaddafi government.
Taking such an approach in Libya will send a salutary message to Syria and Iran.
For Syria, where unrest could lead to sectarian violence between the Sunni Arab majority and the ruling Alawite minority, the United States should plan for two scenarios. If uprisings arise suddenly, we should apply the Libya model. In the absence of a crisis, the United States should step up engagement with democratic elements among Syrian exile groups and build bridges to civil society to strengthen moderate forces inside the country. This can establish an inclusive political foundation for future change.
With respect to Iran, the Obama administration has an opportunity to recover from its failure to support the Green Movement in 2009. As a first step, it should embrace Iranian democrats and work with them to determine what kinds of outside support would be helpful and would not inadvertently undermine their efforts. Attacks by the regime against peaceful protestors should be met with targeted sanctions and a push to have the Security Council refer Iranian leaders to the International Criminal Court.