The Arab world that Barack Obama addressed in his famous speech two years ago is history. It's time for him to speak to the new one.
It’s too early for President Barack Obama’s administration to formulate a new long-term strategy for the Middle East; no one knows what it will look like six months hence, or for that matter, next week. But it’s already clear that the Middle East which Obama addressed in his Cairo speech in June 2009 no longer exists, and thus that the premises of the strategy behind that speech no longer apply.
Administration officials are reported to have begun thinking about how they must adapt to this transformed environment. Sen. John Kerry has begun working with colleagues from both parties to draw up a new package of economic aid for Arab countries seeking to move toward democracy. In that spirit, I offer, not Cairo 2.0, but something more provisional — let’s say, Cairo 1.5.
Salaam Aleikum. My friends, I have returned to Cairo, almost two years after my last visit, because, thanks to the courage of its people in overthrowing a regime they had come to despise, Egypt has reasserted its role at the very center of the Arab political order. That order, for many years, was an autocratic one. Now it is struggling toward freedom. The outcome of that struggle remains unclear and, of course, will vary greatly from state to state. But all those who cherish freedom have an obligation to help the peoples of the Arab world build a new order.
What does that mean in practice? First, I must acknowledge a simple, if inconvenient, truth: We in the United States, while encouraging democracy in the Arab world, were never quite sure we wanted it. Precisely because they were not accountable to the public, autocratic leaders could advance American and Western national security goals that Arab publics broadly did not accept. We were not prepared to push those leaders very hard; that was why the last time I came before you I admonished regional leaders to “maintain your power through consent, not coercion” — but didn’t single out any of them by name. I acknowledge that we may have raised expectations we were not prepared to satisfy.
I come before you today to say that we have put that ambivalence aside. We embrace the truth that in the long run a democratic Middle East is the essential precondition to securing regional peace and stability, and to ending the scourge of terrorism. But that’s the long run. In the years to come, both we and you will have to make painful adjustments. My country cannot and will not abandon its core security interests; but now we must advance those interests in ways that citizens in the Middle East can accept. I will get to that in a moment.
The second thing the United States can do to help the birth of a new Middle East is to provide diplomatic support to the forces of change. Above all, we must help prevent backsliding in those places where the old order has been overthrown and a new one has yet to be born. That means making it clear to transitional leaders in Egypt and Tunisia that ongoing American military and economic support will be conditioned on laying out a clear path to elections and on bringing democratic forces into the government right away. Elsewhere, we will not become advocates for “regime change” — that’s your business, not ours — but we will press leaders in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere to accept the legitimacy of popular protest; and we will do this with the full understanding that reform could lead to governments less sympathetic to American policy in the region.
In several states, notably Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, citizens have paid a high price for their demands for freedom not only in human but in economic terms. So the third step for the United States and the international community is to provide humanitarian and developmental assistance. Humanitarian aid, especially in Libya, must be forthcoming immediately and without conditions; development aid will depend on political change. Here I suggest as a model our own Millennium Challenge Account, which provides funds for states that make strides on indices of democracy and transparency. I propose that new money be made available for states that embrace reform, whether or not they meet current MCA standards. This will not be “democracy assistance,” directed toward political party-building and the like, unless states ask for it. Struggling democracies need economic opportunity, and we must help supply it.
The United States will help, but other countries must pitch in. The only way I can persuade a very reluctant U.S. Congress to add new money to a foreign aid budget already under threat is if the lion’s share comes from other wealthy countries in the West and in the Arab world.
The one true democracy in the Middle East is, of course, Israel, and I believe that over time aspiring democracies in the region will look to Israel for lessons and even help. But this can’t happen until the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is solved — the fourth element of a new Middle East. In 2009, I implored the Palestinians to refrain from violence, and the Israelis to stop building settlements. The Palestinians largely complied, but Israel — thanks in part to legitimate fears that Hamas will not accept any agreement and will exploit a withdrawal to attack Israel’s borders — did not.
Leaders in Egypt and Jordan, whom Israel has relied on for support in the past, are now weakened or gone; as pressure from more representative governments grow, Israel will have little choice but to reach a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians. I believe, and I hope, that Israel’s leaders will come to accept this reality. The United States will continue to serve as Israel’s security guarantor even while driving home the imperative of territorial compromise — including by supporting the Palestinian government’s current drive for sovereign recognition. But states in the region must reassure Israel that it can afford to take such painful steps by supporting a two-state solution and isolating those, like Hamas and Hezbollah, that seek Israel’s destruction.
The fifth and final issue where we must redraw the social contract between an emerging democratic Middle East and its partners in the West is terrorism. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remove one of the great recruitment tools for Islamic extremists, as will the replacement of despotic governments in the region by genuinely representative ones. But the extremists will, if anything, grow more violent as their cause becomes more desperate. And they will be quick to exploit the inevitable disorder, even chaos, produced by the shattering of the old order. In the past, U.S. counterterrorism policy depended on secret understandings struck with leaders unaccountable to their own citizens, who might have bridled at an American presence on the ground and, often, in the air. This arrangement, which originated during the Cold War, will not survive the transition to democracy.
And yet, because a democratic Middle East poses such a grave threat to the extremist narrative, terrorists are likely to target local states as well as the West. This means that while explaining counterterrorism policy has become more difficult than ever, the need for coordination has become yet greater. For our part, this means greater transparency in explaining what we do abroad — and the abolition, once and for all, of policies like extraordinary rendition that have rightly inflamed public opinion. For emerging Middle Eastern states, it means publicly taking on and repudiating extremism in the mosques and on the streets, as well as through vigorous, and transparent, law enforcement. Autocrats said one thing in public and something else in private; now public speech will have to conform to private action.
The euphoria many of you feel today, which you have earned through painful sacrifice, will not long survive the hard struggle toward self-government. Sharp differences of opinion will threaten to degenerate into violence; demagogues will try to exploit ethnic and tribal divisions; the old elite will seek to hijack popular movements. Many of you may soon find yourselves despairing of the future — even, perhaps, wishing for the deadly calm of the old regime. But you must remind yourselves that it was those authoritarian rulers, most of all, who believed that democracy would never flourish in the Arab world. I believe that you will prove them wrong.
James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, 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. Twitter: @jamestraub1
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