Argument
An expert's point of view on a current event.

Obama’s Shallow Realism

Why the U.S. president shouldn't react to one bad foreign policy with another.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Change in the Middle East is urgently needed and long overdue, and there is hope that Barack Obama could be the one to bring change. But there is also a risk that the U.S. president, on the rebound from George W. Bush and his shallow "freedom agenda," could retreat into an equally shallow realism -- the belief that a return to realpolitik and support for dictatorship is a safer bet in the Arab world than supporting democracy. That would be naive, self-defeating, and wrong.

Change in the Middle East is urgently needed and long overdue, and there is hope that Barack Obama could be the one to bring change. But there is also a risk that the U.S. president, on the rebound from George W. Bush and his shallow "freedom agenda," could retreat into an equally shallow realism — the belief that a return to realpolitik and support for dictatorship is a safer bet in the Arab world than supporting democracy. That would be naive, self-defeating, and wrong.

Western indulgence of Arab despotism has long shaped the Middle East for the worse. In no other part of the globe — not even China — has the West operated with so little regard for the human and political rights of local citizens. As waves of democracy broke over Eastern Europe, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia during the mid-20th century, U.S. and Western collusion in Middle Eastern autocracy created an Arab exception, leaving Arab democrats marooned. The West’s morbid fear of political Islam has served to deny Arabs democracy in case they vote for Islamists — as in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon — just as during the Cold War many Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans had to endure Western-endorsed dictators lest they supported communists (who now springs to the defense of the Pinochets, the Suhartos, and the Mobutus?).

The attacks of September 11, 2001, showed the Western world that Arab tyranny — as enabled by U.S. foreign policy — was an essential alloy in the alchemy of Islamist terrorism. But the response of the George W. Bush administration only made Arab authoritarianism more likely.

Even after President Bush committed the United States to a "generational" struggle to transform the Middle East, not much happened, aside from the tragedy of the Iraq war. This was true mainly because of a misguided set of basic principles. For a start, actual knowledge of the countries targeted for redemption was actively discouraged. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought a cold-warrior mind-set to the job, imposing lessons from the transformation of the Soviet buffer into a wholly different environment in which the West has been backing, as it were, the local variant of Stalinism.

Others, typified by the neocon gaggle that provided the philosophical justification for the invasion of Iraq, took a tenpin bowling alley approach: Hit the front pin (in this instance, Iraq) hard enough, and the rest would simply be skittled over.

But what really brought the freedom agenda to a juddering halt was the electoral success of Islamism in 2005 and 2006. After a century of collusion with local despots who suppressed all challenges from across the political spectrum, leaving their citizens nowhere to rally or regroup but the mosque and the madrasa, the West has no one to thank but itself. Still, the only realistic choice is to foster, or at least not actively obstruct, the right of Arabs to decide their own future in whatever form they wish. Because that form will be heavily influenced by Islamism, the West must learn to manage the consequences — in other words, learn how to live with Islamists.

This shouldn’t be an impossible task. There is no endemic or intrinsic conflict between Christians and Muslims. Instead, a majority of Muslims are convinced that the West, interested only in a stability based on regional strongmen, the security of Israel, and cheap oil, is engaged in a war against Islam and bent on denying them the freedoms it claims for itself.

So the challenge — not by any means a minor one — is to ensure that these Muslims are not driven into the arms of the jihadists who, aided by the backlash against Western policies in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, are poised to enter the Muslim mainstream.

Islamic revivalists build on doctrine common to all Islam: building a just society and preserving the unity of the ummah, the worldwide community of believers. That is already a seductive political combination even before any spark of religious belief is added. Add to it the familiar list of timeless and actual Muslim grievances, the sense of a religion under siege, and the lament for lost glory, and what emerges is a potent liberation theology. The best hope for the West is to help find space for a thoughtful Islamism to emerge, one that puts itself in opposition against the lethal form of radical Islam that is now threatening to evolve into a middle-of-the-road viewpoint in many Muslim countries.

This cannot be accomplished the Bush way — his freedom agenda has been discredited. Yet we must not forget the lesson of 9/11, either: the importance of stable, just governments in preventing terrorism. Obama needs to rescue that insight before getting carried away by the realist backlash.

Unless the Arab countries and the broader Middle East can find a way out of the pit of autocracy, their people — between half and two thirds of them under 25 — will be condemned to bleak lives of despair, humiliation, and rage for generations. It will, of course, be primarily up to the citizens of these countries to claw their way out of that pit. But at least they should be able to expect the West to stop stomping on their fingers.

David Gardner is chief leader writer for the Financial Times and author of the forthcoming book, Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance, from which this article is adapted.

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