Duke Magazine
by Bruce W. Jentleson
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It’s important to emphasize that what we’ve been seeing is a mix of a common regional pattern, but also national differences. Bahrain has major Sunni-Shia divisions. Yemen has a tribal structure; Libya, a particularly erratic dictator. Civil society is relatively stronger in Egypt than in other countries, the middle class relatively more extensive in Tunisia than elsewhere. Iran, which has brutally repressed the Green Movement that arose in protest of the stolen June 2009 elections, may—or may not—be able to keep the lid on. So while we can speak of regional trends, we also have to focus nation by nation to understand why the revolutions have been happening in one place but not another and taking different forms.

Larger than life: Tunisian demonstrators hold a poster of vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who committed suicide after police confiscated his wares; he became a martyr.
Larger than life: Tunisian demonstrators hold a poster of vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who committed suicide after police confiscated his wares; he became a martyr.
Associated Press

What Should U.S. Policy Be?

The U.S. thus needs both an overarching regional strategy and country-specific ones. Even at that we cannot determine any of these countries’ futures. But we can help shape them. Some guidelines for doing so:

First, our policy needs to be flexible, multifaceted, and coalition-minded. Flexible means no one size fits all. Military and diplomatic strategies have to be situation-specific—for example, intervening militarily where most justified, as in Libya, while in other cases, such as Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, using strategies best geared to those situations. Multifaceted means drawing on a broad range of tools and policies. These include both political reform and economic assistance, and a mix of initiatives that are public, private, and through NGOs. Coalition-minded means working multilaterally, with international institutions and with other states that also have interests at stake and capacities to bring to bear. Indeed, in this twenty-first-century world, while the U.S. still has an important leadership role to play, there is very little that we can accomplish on our own.

Second, in bilateral relations with Arab states, the balance needs to shift with less emphasis on the old adage “He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB,” and more on “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” There still needs to be a balance: Purism in promoting democracy is neither practical nor prudent. But one administration after another, in trying to straddle these, has kept the heavy foot on the “our SOB” side. Some rhetoric gets devoted to democracy, some pressure brought for reform—but only some. What happens when successor regimes come to power through more violent means? What happens when they come to power, as well, with more intensely anti-American orientations—sentiments that would have been mitigated had change come more civilly and without such close identification of the U.S. with the dictatorial regime? The risk is a lose-lose for U.S. interests and ideals alike.

Third, we must not make the same mistake with political Islam that we did in the Third World during the Cold War, when we lumped together most leaders, parties, and movements that in any way smacked of radicalism as part of the Soviet orbit. Some certainly were, like Kim Il Sung in North Korea and Najibullah in Afghanistan. But in so many other cases, the leaders, parties, and movements had their own local-national identities and agendas that, even when containing anti-American elements, carried possibilities for cooperation or at least coexistence. Political Islam is here to stay. It will be part of the political mix more often than not. We cannot be for political change if we exclude all political Islam. We have to distinguish between those that are fundamental enemies, like Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, and those with which we have differences but with which coexistence and cooperation may be possible.

Fourth, democracy does not spring forth like Athena from Zeus’ head. It takes a long time to build. “It’s an entire country that needs to be remade,” as a Tunisian mayor put it. “It’s not going to be one year, or two years, or three years. It’s going to be an entire generation.” In Egypt, the anti- Mubarak unifying effect quickly gave way to mixes of electoral contestation and behind-the-scenes maneuvering and waves of repression against some of those who led the revolution. Nor is sustainable political stability only about elections and political process. It has to be democracy that delivers on the economic and social-justice issues that underlay the revolts, and on which the internal political competition and overall stability of the system depend. That means more than just GDP growth rates and larger amounts of foreign investment; it also has to be about greater equity and penetrating beyond elites into societies to alleviate problems. For instance, consider the case of a village in Yemen that was left so destitute that it turned to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to provide teachers for its schools.

Fifth, real progress on Arab-Israeli peace is now that much harder, yet that much more essential. Israel is becoming even warier of peace agreements. Arab regimes may resort more often to the diversionary script of invoking the Zionist enemy. But if there is no Arab-Israeli peace soon, there may well be another war.

Still, even the optimal outcome of these policy guidelines would not make the Middle East a fully stable place. Unless we finally reduce our dependence on oil, we will continue to leave ourselves vulnerable to the when—not if—of the next oil market crisis and its cascading effects on our economy and on our everyday lives. We’ll also end up putting ourselves back on the wrong side of history that we’re now trying to get off of. Energy independence is not possible, but reducing energy vulnerability and enhancing energy security are.

And that’s up to us.

American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, with Steven Weber
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