The pro-democracy protests across the Arab world demonstrate that the regional status quo is unsustainable, writes Egyptian political scientist . President Obama’s keynote speech should outline a radical shift in strategy that reflects and reinforces the upsurge in people power.
For decades, Arabs and Muslims have heard glorious speeches and countless promises from U.S. officials, from Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points to Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo declaration of a “New Beginning.” A century on from Wilson asserting the universal right of self determination, the Palestinians are still denied an independent state, while East Timor and Southern Sudan have joined the ranks of nations.
President’s Obama’s address comes at a critical juncture.
The Arab world is experiencing a wave of pro-democracy uprisings that have accentuated people power and demonstrably confirmed citizens’ aspirations to live under free, democratic and accountable governments. Osama Bin Laden’s death should mark a major turn in the U.S.-declared and open-ended “global war on terrorism.” The peace process has been stalled for several years and Palestinians appear poised to start a third intifada to demand a state of their own. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Obama’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted to a new low.
At no point has the gap between America’s declared principles and its actual policies seemed wider than today. Obama’s speech should offer concrete steps to bridge this distance and present a defining moment for future U.S. policies in the Middle East.
Prescriptive strategies on what needs to be done in the Muslim world abound; what is missing is political will and consistent vision.
This political will should reflect a genuine desire to address the root causes of the problems and a willingness to take a multilateral approach within the framework of international legality, justice and adherence to universal values. This should be the overarching orientation that guides U.S. policy with regard to a myriad of issues, from the peace process, the war on terrorism, extrajudicial military operations, relations with Iran, economic development, and human rights and democracy promotion.
As for consistent vision, the Middle East and the Muslim world are undergoing major transformations – even revolutions in some parts. The U.S. needs to undertake a similarly profound change and adopt fresh policies.
The “old school” realist position of maintaining the status quo to ensure stability is history. A new vision needs to be nurtured, one that is friendlier to the Arab and Muslim publics than to authoritarian regimes and which supports and engages pro-democracy movements as partners rather than inconvenient obstacles to regional stability. In a future Muslim landscape, the United States needs to communicate more clearly that it can be the bearer of the peace, economic development, hope and opportunity, justice and human rights which the rest of the world looks to America to represent, and was so eloquently stated by Obama to the cheering Cairo throng and Muslim world two years ago.
It is time for a fresh strategic vision. Taking a case by case policy stance, which, I fear, is more likely to happen, does not present a new beginning, but more of the same.