Taking the Long View on the Middle East Revolts

Obama Middle East Speech Libyan Soldier

The President’s speech on the Middle East yesterday finally outlined the Administration’s initial principles for addressing one of the most significant developments in international relations in a generation.  Until yesterday, the debate about options in Libya and how to approach the Middle East revolts in general was far too narrow in scope and too near-term in timeline. 

We should not focus unduly on the tactical and operational issues of whether to establish no-fly zones or whether to impose sanctions of this kind or that, on this Middle East leader or that one.
Rather, we are in a geostrategic moment that, if handled effectively, could help dry up the sources of terrorist threats over the long term and establish new, reliable partnerships, based on shared democratic values, with nations in the Arab world.  Such a moment requires that we use a broad and strategic framework for considering the use of the full range of instruments, in concert with our allies and partners, to achieve our most important national security goals.
Those goals encompass the tried and true objectives of deterring aggression and coercion that could damage U.S. interests, while reassuring current allies and partners, and those whom we wish to be our friends in the future.  But whom we should seek to deter, and whom to assure, presents the U.S. and our allies and partners with important dilemmas.  If, in the interests of “stability,” we lean too far towards supporting the leaders of the Middle Eastern nations who are the subjects of so much populist activism, we risk further alienating millions of people who could be the main sources of popular (and more legitimate) support for the next governments in their countries.  On the other hand, if we lean too far toward “freedom” — supporting the protesters across the Middle East — we risk alienating long-time allies and partners with whom we currently enjoy very beneficial security relationships, including basing and military presence.
Until yesterday, the Obama Administration had tilted too far towards stability and the current regimes in power, and it has come around too slowly to support the protesters in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere.
We are at the outset of a series of popular revolutions in the most unstable region of the globe — and the region in which we have used military force the most and on the largest scale, by any nation, since the end of the Cold War.  These revolutions have arisen indigenously and represent the greatest expression of the desire for democracy and other civic values inherent in our own national identity in a generation (and which we have been promoting as a core feature of our national policy since our nation’s founding in 1776).  In this context, which friends we should seek to assure and which parties to deter takes on historic significance.
President Obama came into office seeking to engage peoples, not just governments, and the peoples of the greater Middle East in particular, in order to best advance our national interests.  His speech in Cairo in 2009 laid out a vision for engagement and integration of the Middle East into the global community.  His approach remains to help bring the people of this region into the community of advanced democracies by engaging them economically, politically, culturally, and in manifold other ways.  His ultimate goal is to enhance global prosperity and freedom and help dry up the sources of alienation, disaffection, and terrorism.
Considerations regarding the type of actions we and our allies should take to prevent the further loss of innocent life in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, and for our broader national goals, must cast a strong eye toward the effects of our actions on the people watching us in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Algeria, and yes, in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere across this vast region.
Every time we take a position – or fail to do so — on unfolding developments regarding the protests in the Middle East, roughly one billion people across the region are watching and making their own decisions.  They are deciding for themselves whether the United States is for them, or for the autocrats under which they suffer; whether the United States truly acts based upon its espoused values of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, or whether the misperceptions of U.S. policy that were formed during the Cold War in this region, and which reached their apogee in the post-9/11 era, are true.
Until yesterday, the Obama Administration’s actions – and its relative inaction — have not given these peoples the assurance they are seeking that the United States is for them, and not for oil, “stability”, or autocracy.
At the same time, the autocrats who are under threat from popular revolts also are reading in the U.S. approach so far that they have little to fear if they crush the protesters brutally to remain in power.  The Syrian regime’s actions this month, which continue today, are a bloody reminder of this fact.
The Obama Administration needs to consider its actions in Libya and elsewhere as first steps toward reassuring these peoples that the United States is on their side, that we stand for the values of justice, liberty, freedom, and democracy for which they are shedding blood, and that we sincerely seek their integration into the world community of prosperous advanced nations.  If the U.S. and our allies act consistently and in a way that is animated by our core values, we will help to dry up the sources of terrorism that emanate from this very region. 
This is the beginning of a new era in history, and the United States’ leadership position in the world will suffer greatly if we are seen by the peoples in one of the most critical regions of the world as advocates of “stability” rather than as ardent and sincere promoters of human rights, justice, and the rule of law.  The President’s speech yesterday was an important first step in avoiding such a damaging outcome.  Now, a lot more must be done, including turning the principles outlined yesterday into a comprehensive strategy and developing concrete initiatives to help the region turn these aspirations into reality.
Barry Pavel is director of the International Security Program and director-designate and Arnold Kanter Chair of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Getty Images.

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