For all the president’s talk of “game changers,” he and his foreign policy team seem unable to recognize a real one, even when it stares them in the face. As tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Egyptians take to the streets to call for the end of Husni Mubarak’s 30 years of misrule, the president and his team seem intent on upholding the old order instead of helping usher in a new one. When the history of the Middle East’s winter revolutions is written, and scholars try to explain why those remarkable events ushered in an era of region-wide hostility toward and non-cooperation with the United States, they will point to Vice President Biden’s refusal to call Mubarak a dictator, or Hillary Clinton’s urging Egypt’s brave pro-democracy activists to calm down, or President Obama’s blithe announcement that the protests indicated that “now would be a good time to start some reform.”
Of course, the administration’s position stems not from a lack of vision, but rather from a surfeit of fear. For almost 50 years, we have performed a delicate balancing act in the Middle East, declaring our commitment to liberty while at the same time endorsing autocrats like Mr. Mubarak who, we were led to believe, stood guard against a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism. The bitter irony of this strategy is that it helped produce and nurture precisely those things that we dreaded. Islamists thrived on pointing out to their people America’s alleged double standards, arguing that we want democracy only for ourselves and not for the oppressed of the world.
This policy might have been justifiable if it actually produced the “stability” we sought, but the grim events of September 11, which sent to our shores violent sons of “moderate allies” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should have exposed that stability as nothing more than a fiction. On the contrary, this policy has bred chaos and hatred and instability. And in the midst of chaos, hatred, and instability, democracy and economic development — processes that come hand in hand — have been placed on the back burner, fueling the resentments of ordinary citizens across the region.
It is far too early, of course, to tell whether what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere will result in regime change, leadership change, true democracy, or something else. But what is clear is that certain old truths about the Middle East, truths that were the basis of our old policies toward that world, no longer stand.
First, that the region is stagnant, people apathetic and autocratic regimes too entrenched to be challenged. Rather, small social changes — such as new technologies, an increasingly savvy and outspoken youth — are able to rock the foundations of even the most seemingly durable regime.
Second, that Islamists represent the only genuine social force in Arab lands, that it would be those who hold aloft the banner of Islam that would lead any popular uprising and hijack any democratic opening. Instead, what we are seeing is that Islamists are but a part of the protests, participating as one part of a movement that spans class and ideology, unified only by a desire for democracy and freedom.
Third, supporting reform in Egypt will jeopardize Israeli security. Israel’s security depends on security and peace agreements with states that represent the interests of their people (not with states that repress their people in the name of upholding peace agreements with Israel). Decades of support for Arab leaders most friendly to Israel have failed to bring peace. A durable peace process is no longer about bi-lateral agreements with illegitimate Arab dictators (supported by the U.S.), rather real peace needs to reflect the interests of citizens in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Cairo.
Finally, that the West — and especially the US — can keep its friends in power. Ben Ali, after all, boarded a plane not because he had violated unwritten terms of alliance, but because his people had finally said enough.
Some may argue that the events unfolding in the Middle East now are too unpredictable to warrant a wholesale shift in U.S. foreign policy, that transferring support from loyal satraps to an untested popular opposition may backfire if that opposition fails or is put down, that the U.S. needs reassurances of friendly allies (often at the expense of democracy). But America is not simply a bystander in all of this — its actions and words will affect the outcome. They will signal to opposition and regimes alike how far each can expect to go in challenging — or repressing — the other. Opposition movements (and would-be opposition movements) secular or Islamist are not only waging a battle against authoritarian oppression — but a battle against the ways in which the U.S. manifests its quest to secure its geo-strategic interest.
Autocratic leaders lose power very much the same way Hemingway noted that people go bankrupt: gradually, and then all at once. The U.S. can now take policy steps in our best interest that are consistent with the values we hold so deeply, supporting those calling for democracy and knowing it is in our best interest. When change comes to the Middle East, as it surely will, let us make sure that we are on the right side.
Amaney Jamal, Ellen Lust, and Tarek Masoud teach Middle Eastern politics at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.