"We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator … America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region … we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike."

Which prominent American spoke these words? It was neither Senator John McCain, enthusiast of democracy promotion, nor former President George W. Bush, architect of the Freedom Agenda. It was our realist, pragmatic President Barack Obama, in a major speech on May 19, 2011, during the heady early months of the Arab Spring. The president argued that concentrating mainly on longstanding U.S. security interests was no longer enough. Obama declared that encouraging transitions to democracy was now a "top U.S. priority that must be translated into concrete actions and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal." He announced a three-pronged strategy for the transitioning countries: standing up firmly for democratic values, helping troubled economies, and expanding engagement beyond Arab regimes to newly-emboldened citizens. 

To implement this new policy, the Obama administration started off energetically enough in 2011 –engaging forthrightly with elected Islamists, promising significant economic assistance to Egypt and Tunisia as well as other kinds of help to oil-rich but expertise-poor Libya, and praising democratic progress when it occurred. But soon enough, after a series of tragic and discouraging developments, the United States began to pull back. The September 2012 assassination in Libya of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the attack in Tunisia on U.S. diplomatic facilities caused the United States to retrench just as those countries’ fragile transitions most needed strong U.S. involvement. The Syrian regime’s brutal response to what began as a peaceful uprising further provoked extreme caution in U.S. policy.

In Egypt, in the face of mounting political and economic disorder and a campaign against U.S. democracy aid, the United States hunkered down, focused on protecting relations with the military and building access to the new Muslim Brotherhood leadership while keeping opposition parties and civil society at a distance. The old U.S. habits of the Mubarak era — downplaying the government’s blatantly undemocratic actions, discounting the importance of political and social forces outside power — soon resurfaced. There are recent (belated) signs of a greater U.S. willingness to criticize publicly President Mohamed Morsi’s repressive tactics, but the U.S. stance still calls out for much more clarity and consistency.  So much for steadfastly championing universal democratic values, the first prong of Obama’s strategy.

Despite severe budget constraints, the United States did make a start on delivering economic help, but the response has been slow and inadequate for the historic moment. The United States has not done nearly enough to mobilize international assistance and to deploy powerful non-aid tools such as trade incentives. In Egypt, especially, the United States has hewed to the same economic and security aid posture it has had for decades. As for broadening engagement with Arab citizens, the United States has failed to launch a visible, robust effort to build links to youth, civil society, and other citizen agents of change. Although Arab public opinion is more relevant than ever to the future of the Middle East and the U.S. ability to operate there, the United States still tends to view such outreach as a soft add-on to its core hard policy interests, rather than as a strategic necessity.

In sum, two years after the May 2011 speech, Obama’s vision largely has gone unfulfilled. A policy launched for a "new chapter" in U.S.-Arab world relations has given way to one seemingly dominated by ambivalence about whether democratization there even really much matters.

So was the president wrong to say what he did in May 2011? Carried away by the moment? Did he fail to realize that in the Middle East "there are no real opportunities here — only migraine headaches and root canals," as Aaron David Miller wrote recently?

On the contrary, Obama was correct about the significance of the change underway in the Arab region and the imperative to reorient U.S. policy. What his administration failed to do was to translate that vision into a serious and sustainable policy that could withstand the inevitable bumps along the road. Any serious observer of transitions from authoritarianism around the world would know that these changes in Arab countries were going to be turbulent and lengthy — to be measured in years and decades more than months. The United States should neither throw up its hands too early, nor declare democracy complete after just one or two free elections are held.

Admittedly, the ongoing political turmoil in the Arab transition countries has complicated the U.S. role. But there are also some major changes in the approach needed in Obama’s second term: 

  • U.S. humility should not translate into paralysis. The Obama administration’s emphasis on "mutual respect" and humility in relations with the Arab world was an inevitable and welcome recalibration after the overreach of the George W. Bush years. But it also has become an excuse for inaction. The United States cannot fix the Middle East, but its help is needed and wanted in many quarters. U.S. officials fear that more vocal democracy promotion would generate a backlash, but recent polling data indicate that Obama is significantly less popular than was Bush, so a hands-off approach is not exactly bolstering U.S. prestige. Others contend that U.S. democracy activism has little impact. New Arab leaders eager for international democratic legitimacy, however, do notice and often react to well-crafted incentives and pressure from the United States and its allies.
  • Effective diplomacy and creative engagement are needed more than billions from the U.S. budget. The good news is that helping Arab countries that are trying to execute these difficult transitions is an effort that the United States need not — indeed, should not — try to support on its own. Badly-needed economic and technical assistance, as well as investment, should come from their most important economic partners in Europe, Asia, and Gulf States. The United States should take the lead in aggregating donor aid and focus more on anti-corruption and government accountability initiatives, which are vital issues in the transition countries but mostly neglected in the U.S. approach. And even if the United States is not prepared to offer Free Trade Agreements now, it could devise a more appealing trade agenda that would help entice new governments to begin hard but potentially transformative reforms.
  • Focus squarely on keeping political space open and building democratic institutions. The United States’s approach to political reform in these countries often appears reactive and ad hoc, lacking an underlying theory of what matters most for democratization. The United States must prioritize issues as it engages with countries in which various political groups are coming to power for the first time, with little experience in political bargaining and none in governing. Keeping political space open — through free elections, open media, and a vigorous civil society — should be the top priority, so that citizens have the ability to call officials to account and to debate controversial issues such as women’s rights that are especially sensitive for outsiders to weigh in on. Creation of new democratic institutions (judiciaries and security services, for example) should be another focus.
  • Redouble engagement with those outside of government. As change roils Arab societies, it is urgent that the United States better understand what is happening outside of the centers of official power. U.S. officials’ failure to do so in the past was precisely why they did not see the Arab uprisings coming, and the United States risks repeating the mistake. This is an era of pluralism and of discontent in Arab transition countries, and those who gain power in early elections might not hold it for long. The United States would do well to keep a close eye on the aspirations of those under 25. Nearly one half of the population, youth are the greatest challenge to stability and also the greatest potential economic dividend for these countries.

What will happen if the United States remains disengaged? Effective support from outside powers will not be the only factor determining where the Arab transition countries go, but the history of other democratization experiences around the world shows that it is a significant one. If the United States fails to marshal international support for the Arab transitions and stands mute while vital actors (such as the judiciary, media, and civil society) are eviscerated, it will increase the chances that Arab Spring countries ultimately will fail in their aspiration to build democratic systems.

It is a fantasy that these countries can return safely to the repressive but relatively stable autocratic systems that existed before 2011. Should democratization fail, Islamist or military authoritarian systems would be likely to emerge, and in turn provoke more unrest and deepen instability. Does the United States want to see an Egypt that looks like Sudan or Pakistan in their darkest days, or a Libya as unstable as Somalia at its worst? These are not scenarios to be discounted, but neither are they inevitable. On the contrary, despite the difficulties of the current phase, there is still every reason to believe that Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia can build democratic systems within a decade or two. Democratization — messy, uncertain, and protracted — is the best of all difficult options.

For the United States, supporting democratic transitions in the Arab world will not be an intense sprint but rather a marathon, requiring sustained effort over many years. It is past time, but still not too late, for the Obama administration to put into practice what the president promised two years ago.  

Amy Hawthorne is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Michele Dunne is director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. Photo Credit.