• Women
  • September 2, 2008
  • 8 minutes read

Engaging the Middle East

Engaging the Middle East

In response to my post last week on the need to “engage better” rather than “engage less” with the Middle East, Greg Scoblete at RealClearWorld comments:

At what point will the failure to finesse properly the politics of hundreds of million of people of varying cultures, sectarian devotions and tribal loyalties half a world away be credited to the impossibility of the task and not the inadequacy of the tools?

To the extent that the Middle East is “screwed up,” it”s because the region has been the scene of so much “engagement” by great powers throughout its history. Why not try something novel for a change?

Two good questions, and I think some of commenters here at DA had similar concerns. I”ll answer the second one first. Yes, “why not try something novel for a chance?” That”s exactly what I”ve been asking for a long time. Over the past five decades, the U.S. has had a fairly consistent approach to the Middle East – support pliable “pro-West” dictatorships at the expense of Arab publics. We helped overthrow at least one democratically-elected government in 1953, and we stood silently while another one was overthrown in 1991. Today, even under the supposedly pro-democracy Bush administration, the vast majority of Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes receive economic, political, or military support from us (including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, and now, it seems, Libya).

There was only one very brief period of around 10 months in 2004-5 when the U.S. actually tried to pressure Arab regimes to democratize. The results were positive, but we never followed through. In short, with only one real exception, the U.S. has not tried something novel. We haven”t yet given democracy promotion a chance. Getting serious about democracy is precisely the kind of novel change we should be pushing for. Anything else is just business as usual, and, as Greg notes, it hasn”t worked. 

As for Greg”s first question, the goal, in my view, is not to “finesse” the politics of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims. The goal is simpler (at least in theory): it”s about helping give Arabs and Muslims the right to make their own choices, to choose their own governments, and to raise their kids the way they see fit without fear of government persecution. I don”t see this as “meddling,” because it”s something Arabs themselves want. For example, somewhat remarkably, 90% of Jordanians agree or strongly agree that “democracy may have problems, but it’s better than any other form of government” (World Values Survey). Strong support for democratic governance is the case across the board. The Project on Middle East Democracy actually just released a report on this issue, discussing Middle Eastern attitudes toward democracy and U.S. democracy promotion policy. It”s worth looking at if you have some time.

For their part, Egyptian and Jordanian opposition leaders, whether they are liberal, secularist, leftist or Islamist, are all demanding real political reform, and most of them understand that the U.S. is an important part of the solution, if only because it”s currently a major part of the problem. They see the U.S. as being an obstacle to political reform, so democracy will only come if, somehow, America recognizes that mistake and removes itself as an obstacle, and gets on the right side of change. The message I hear from nearly everyone is: stop supporting our dictatorships! So, even if we don”t want to “meddle” by promoting democracy, let”s at least stop promoting the opposite.

Beyond this very clear goal of expanding democratic space for all political actors, I have no interest in turning Arabs into Americans, or interfering in “cultural production.” That obviously doesn”t work, and perhaps that”s what Greg is worried about.Hope this clears things up.