Have we got the Arab Spring right?

The Middle East Institute, which kindly lists me among its “scholars,” asked me to address the question of whether President Obama has established the right policy in his May 19 speech in his May 19 speech for reform and democracy in the Middle East and whether implmentation is adequate.  This MEI meeting was part of a broader effort to look at the implications of the Arab Spring.  Here are the notes I used yesterday to respond, slightly embellished with hindsight (see especially note 19).

Reform and Democracy

Middle East Institute

 July 29, 2011

1. President Obama was clear enough in May:  he said, “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”

2.  And he added:   “our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.”

3.  Nor was there any doubt what “reform” means:   “The United States supports a set of universal rights…[including]  free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders.”

4.  This he made clear is on top of our “core” interests in the region:  “countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.”

5.  So is the Administration living up to its own rhetoric?  Is the policy framework right?  Is the bureaucratic response adequate?

6.  My view is that basically the policy framework is correct.  As someone whose foreign service career was spent mainly in Europe, I in fact am a bit surprised that this was not the policy framework all along.

7.  Values and interests have always been pursued in tandem in Europe, though not always without conflict and tradeoffs.  I served 10 years in Italy, where we often compromised our values in favor of our interest in keeping the Communist Party out of power.

8.  Of course there is more conflict between values and interests in the Middle East, especially when it comes to countries that have not yet seen much of the Arab Spring:  the GCC countries in particular.

9.  I see no sign that we’ve really adjusted our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates to this policy framework.

10.  Nor do I see signs that Saudi Arabia has embraced reform:  this week’s Economist reports on efforts there to restrict new media by “inciting divisions between citizens”, “damaging the country’s public affairs”, or insulting senior clerics.  The Shura Council is considering a draft anti-terrorism law that would criminalize “endangering national unity” and “harming the interests of the state,” imposing harsh penalties.  Our embassy won’t be encouraged to reform by the fact that this proposal originates with Prince Nayef; repression can’t be more of a problem for us than for the Saudis.

11.  As for other countries, I would hesitate to make the judgment on my own.

12.  In Tunisia, we seem to be doing the right things.  But the Project on Middle East Democracy/Boell Foundation report suggests effectiveness is spotty in a lot of other places:

    • Aid is restricted by US policy concerns (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,  Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, fifth fleet in Bahrain)
    • Host government concerns (Yemen, Egypt)
    • US aid is a declining percentage of the whole (Egypt $17B from Gulf)
    • Indifference (Morocco)
    • Violence (Yemen and Libya)
    • Excessive focus on government bodies and not enough on real democratic development

14. I think part of the problem is the bureaucratic structure, which is not only fragmented but also too much under State Department and chief of mission control.

15.  If you are going to get serious about supporting reform, especially in coutries where interests militate in the other direction, you are going to have to break the strait jackets diplomats put on you.  I am not a fan of interagency mechanisms when it comes to democracy support.

16.  We are going to see a whole lot more support for reform the more independent the sources of funding are—ask anyone (except George, who was disappointed in the results) whether Soros was effective in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

17.  I would rate NED and its family of organizations as a preferable conduit for democracy assistance (relative to State or USAID), at least until the revolution has actually occurred.  And yes, Fulbrights should be regarded as part of our democracy and reform support efforts.

18.  In the end, though, the most important instrument for influencing the course of events in some  countries will not be our democratization support efforts, but the U.S. military, whose training and assistance were certainly influential in Egypt and could be in places like Bahrain and Iraq.

19.  It goes without saying that we can only be effective if there is an indigenous movement for democracy and reform, one that has taken on the responsibility of defining for itself what those words mean.  We should not be imposing systems that we invent, but helping others to discover what will suit their needs for accountability, transparency and inclusivity.

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One thought on “Have we got the Arab Spring right?”

  1. Democracy is about talking, negotiations and (often dirty) compromises.

    I think that by sabotaging talks – as we do in Libya and Syria – we are not doing the case of democracy in those countries a favor.

    We have nice excuses – those are nasty regimes – but to me it seems that the refusal has more to do with a desire in Washington and Brussels for replacing the regimes with a more pro-Western successor than with care about democracy. Talks might leave some parts of the present policies intact and we don’t want that.

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