It seems unlikely that U.S. policy toward the Middle East will get much attention during the 2012 presidential campaign, especially when it comes to the epochal transformations under way in the Arab world, writes Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center. But whoever wins the election, the next U.S. administration should institutionalize the promotion of Arab democracy by funding a multilateral “reform endowment” to provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement reforms.
President Obama has repeatedly proclaimed his support for Arab democratic aspirations. Yet the rhetoric has not been translated into clear policy initiatives, let alone significant material assistance.
The Obama administration has avoided articulating a broader vision or grand strategy and instead emphasized the need for a “boutique strategy” that focuses on the specifics of each particular case. Considering the vastly different contexts of each country, this is unavoidable. Yet, a case-by-case approach, to be successful, needs to be guided by a coherent vision. There is nothing approaching the unified purpose of Truman’s Marshall Plan or even the rhetorical sharpness of Bush’s short-lived “freedom agenda.” The amount of U.S. economic assistance promised to transitional countries is minimal, dwarfed by the commitments made by the Gulf countries.
In the United States, there is growing sentiment, particularly on the Left, that America’s declining influence and negligible credibility in the region compel it to adopt a “hands-off” approach and reduce its footprint in the Arab world. Yet it is precisely because of its still considerable power and influence in the region that the United States can and should provide critical support to Arab countries transitioning to democracy. After supporting autocratic regimes for more than five decades, the United States has a second chance to get it right and, in the process, build considerable goodwill among Arab populations and the governments they elect.
Whether Obama is reelected or replaced by a Republican, the United States must:
- Articulate a comprehensive strategy toward the Middle East that advances American long-term interests by prioritizing the support of democracy and democrats in the region.
- Institutionalize the promotion of Arab democracy by coordinating the funding of a multilateral “reform endowment” that would provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement necessary reforms.
- Pursue a strategic dialogue with rising Islamist parties in key countries of interest.
- Recognize that the window for a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is closing, commit to rebuilding frayed ties with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and outline clear U.S. parameters on borders, right of return, and the status of Jerusalem.
Active and consistent support for democratic change in the Arab world—even if it means occasionally angering long-standing allies—is important for a number of reasons. First, it aligns American policy with regional trends that are irreversible. Instead of being caught unaware once again, the United States should anticipate the changes to come—and recognize that the region is growing more, not less, democratic. It means little to support the demands of protesters after they have already won. It will send a much stronger signal to the region’s future leaders if Washington encourages and defends them when it is not easy and when their victory is far from a foregone conclusion.
Second, before the Arab Spring, anti-American sentiment could be—and often was—ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. After all, it mattered what governments did, and most Arab governments were firmly in the pro-U.S. orbit. In the coming years, however, what Arabs think and what their governments do will be much more closely linked. And, as long as tens of millions of Arabs dislike the United States, viewing it as a destructive force in the region, Arab democracies will feel compelled to act against American interests to gain popular support. Of course, Arab public opinion, fueled by deeply held resentments, will not change overnight, but, over the long run, the United States can work to build new relationships—based on shared values and common interests—with the region’s rising democracies.
As for countries that are not democracies, and may not be anytime soon, a forward-looking strategy is required. Many, including Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, will follow a middle path, somewhere between outright revolution and total repression. Here, the United States and like-minded nations should work to persuade them that they must start or continue down the path of reform because substantive change, however difficult, is ultimately the only viable option. Rather than being satisfied with partial, cosmetic reforms, the United States should clarify that the ultimate goal is a revamped political system in which the king or dictator relinquishes significant power to elected bodies.
Moving in this direction requires measures that institutionalize the promotion of Arab democracy. The next president should coordinate the funding of a “reform endowment” that would provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement necessary reforms. The endowment would include a minimum of $5 billion and would be available to all interested countries. Receiving aid would be conditioned on meeting a series of explicit, measurable benchmarks on democratization. These benchmarks would be the product of extensive negotiations with interested countries. Unused funds would be reinvested, while new democracies would be asked to contribute annual dues to help grow the endowment over time. For skeptical Arab audiences, the message from the United States and other donor countries would be clear—democracy cannot be imposed, but it can be actively and vigorously supported.
For transitional states like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, benchmarks could include military noninterference in civilian affairs, the establishment of judicial independence, and the protection of a vibrant, independent press. For liberalizing monarchies, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait, benchmarks should focus on expanded political space for opposition groups and the gradual devolution of power to elected institutions that are accountable to the people. This reform endowment should be funded with contributions from the United States, European nations, Turkey, Brazil, Qatar, and other like-minded powers. An international board would apportion loans and grants to states seeking to bring about real reform.
Democracy skeptics will counter that such efforts are in vain and that democratization has its dark side in light of the rise of Islamist parties. In a sense, they are right; in the Middle East, the future is Islamist. Instead of denying or fighting what is now an unmistakable reality, the United States and Europe should adapt by pursuing a strategic dialogue with Islamist actors across the region. Such parties are either already playing major roles in parliament and government or are likely to do so in the near future. Therefore, U.S. interests in the region will, whether Americans like it or not, be inextricably tied to theirs. With this in mind, there is an urgent need to foster a degree of mutual understanding and trust with these groups.
Many of them, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, have made clear their desire to engage with the United States, realizing that American support will be critical to boosting trade and attracting foreign investment. Again, timing matters. Such relationships should be developed before these parties come to power, rather than afterward, when American leverage is likely to be less effective. With such channels, the United States can exert influence—and, if necessary, pressure—when Islamist parties overreach and take action that threatens vital U.S. interests in the region.
The Arab Spring will see the emergence of governments that are less amenable to Israel’s security interests. The more democratic the Middle East becomes, the more anti-Israel new elected governments will be. Israel’s isolation is only likely to grow. With this in mind, the United States should make clear that it stands firmly by Israel during a difficult time, while also impressing upon it the need to act sooner rather than later to make the difficult but ultimately necessary compromises for a durable peace.
This is a slightly edited extract from a longer paper from the Brookings Doha Center. Read the rest here.