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Terms of Engagement

The Post-Tunisia World

Last week's upheaval showed that citizens of the Arab world are willing and able to overthrow their dictators -- and the Obama administration has to figure out how it will respond when they do.


The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted a radical rethinking inside the administration of President George W. Bush about the purposes of American foreign policy — above all in the Middle East. “Realism died on 9/11,” as an administration official said to me several years later. Changing the insides of states had become a matter of national security no less urgent than affecting their external behavior. Bush, previously a hardheaded realist, became an ardent proponent of democracy promotion.

But the problem — or at least the biggest problem — was that while the terrorist attacks had changed the United States, they hadn’t changed the place where the United States hoped to act. Terrorism had made democratic reform more urgent without making it a whit more likely. Autocratic leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere regarded the president’s new preoccupation as a mere irritant.

Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, it’s that world, not the United States, that’s changing. The Tunisian people have taken to the streets and ousted a tyrant, just as the people in the Philippines, Chile, Romania, and Georgia once did. And that spectacle has inspired young people and activists across the region. The Tunisian drama may end badly, of course: Protests elsewhere may simmer down, and in any case the conditions that produced this one revolutionary upheaval may turn out to be sui generis. But Arab regimes are shakier today, and their critics more emboldened, than they were before. And Barack Obama, like Bush before him, must adapt to a Middle East different from the one he inherited.

A region that has felt paralyzed by autocratic rule is now in motion. Leaders are backpedaling: The emir of Kuwait abruptly announced that he would distribute $4 billion in cash and free food to citizens. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt issued a call for investment in Arab youth. You can almost smell the fear in the likes of Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, who informed the country’s official press agency that “the talk about the spread of what happened in Tunisia to other countries is nonsense.”

Egypt, where the increasingly frail and profoundly unpopular Mubarak, age 82, seems prepared to run for president once again this year, looks especially vulnerable. At least three desperate protesters there have set themselves on fire in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the uprising in Tunisia. The bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, which killed 21, has exposed frightening new divisions in the country. And Egyptian leaders are angrily pushing back against outside criticism. Aboul Gheit called on a group of Arab foreign ministers meeting in the resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh this week to adopt a resolution telling the West: “Do not dare interfere in our affairs.”

Aboul Gheit was reacting not only to criticism following the New Year’s Day bombing, but to a speech his American counterpart, Hillary Clinton, had just delivered in Doha on January 13, warning that people in many parts of the Arab world “have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” and imploring states to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law and the inclusion of civil society. One way of framing the choices facing Obama: Should he now be more willing, or less, to risk infuriating autocratic allies through public criticism?

Until now, U.S. officials, above all Clinton, have almost always chosen circumspection. And they’ve had at least a plausible rationale: Bush took a different approach and failed. In 2005, both Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly criticized Mubarak’s regime and demanded that it hold free and fair elections. Mubarak first gave ground, and then cracked down on the opposition; the White House, fearful of offending a key ally and worried about the growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, held its tongue. Obama discarded Bush’s crusading moralism in favor of “engagement,” which dictated a more respectful stance toward regimes.

Clinton has been the administration’s most single-minded practitioner of engagement. When she emerged from a meeting with Aboul Gheit in Washington last November to brief the press, she decided to omit one subject they had discussed — human rights in Egypt. According to two Middle East experts, Aboul Gheit had been so offended by her private remarks that she decided to say nothing in public, though aides had included such remarks in her prepared text. (A State Department official would neither confirm nor deny the account.) Clinton has rarely criticized autocratic allies in public. Although Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has recently jailed political opponents and shut down human rights organizations, Clinton has remained silent on the subject — as has the White House — and she did not allude to this unpleasantness in the speech she gave in the Persian Gulf kingdom last month.

The truth is that, just as Bush’s bluster didn’t relax the iron grip of Arab regimes, neither has Obama’s policy of engagement. The president asked Mubarak to lift Egypt’s state of emergency and permit international observers to monitor the recent parliamentary election; Mubarak stiffed him on both counts. Taking engagement seriously has had the effect of demonstrating its limits as well as its virtues. It’s time to try something else — or something more.

Is the Doha speech, then, a sign of new thinking? Tamara Cofman Wittes, the State Department’s lead official for Middle East democracy promotion, insists that it’s not. “We’ve been watching these trends in the region for quite some time,” she says. But Clinton’s language was in fact a sharp departure from the past, and my understanding is that the administration has been conducting a broad reassessment of human rights and democracy promotion policy in recent months, though not specifically with regard to the Middle East. Obama himself seems more willing to use the kind of moral vocabulary he once regarded with skepticism: Witness his public welcome to Chinese President Hu Jintao, which included a call for China to accept universal standards of human rights. Obama also made a point of meeting with five Chinese human rights activists and scholars the week before Hu’s arrival.  

China, of course, will not give much more than lip service to American calls for reform. But the lesson of Tunisia is that even in the Middle East, public fury can demolish apparently stable regimes — and do so in a moment. Some regimes, especially in the Persian Gulf, will be able to continue bribing restive citizens into submission; some may even retain legitimacy through good governance and economic mobility. But others will try to stare down their domestic and foreign critics as internal pressures rise higher and higher. What then?

The answer that some administration officials give — and this does, in fact, represent a new strain of thinking — is that they have begun to look beyond regimes in order to strengthen the hand of other actors. In this sense, Clinton’s swing through the Arab world, which included meetings with local human rights and democracy activists, was itself the message, as much as the speech itself: The administration has increasingly come to see the funding and public encouraging of civil society organizations as a “second track” of engagement in repressive regimes. I was told, in fact, that the harsh criticisms of regimes that Clinton heard in these sessions found their way into her speech.

This is all to the good. But how will the administration respond when regimes jail those activists or shut down their organizations? With silence, as in Bahrain? With private entreaties and public tact, as in Egypt? Or has the logic of engagement finally exhausted itself? Betting that Arab autocrats will stay in power and preserve American interests looks riskier than ever. How will the White House react if public outrage threatens Algiers, or Cairo? The time to start thinking about this question is now.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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