How the US Should Engage Political Revolt in the Middle East
Previously published on Feb 19, 2011
If the transition to democracy goes well for Egypt, and hopefully for places like Tunisia, the pressure to democratize will only intensify across the entire region. In tandem, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Israel stand to benefit from an improved climate focused on increased civil engagement and responsibility. Additionally, the Palestinian administered territories, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran might also be pushed to moderate politically and socially, because true democracy requires the consensus of a broad cross-section of the entire population. Coupled with the need for greater participation in global affairs, a larger number of successful democratic nation-states in the Middle East will force changes that ultimately lead the discontented away from often violent, extremist activism toward more civil, constructive political participation.
On the other hand, too much change too soon can overwhelm the capacity of social institutes to cope with civil demands. In countries with weak civil and social infrastructure, this could lead to the collapse of governance, which would create dramatic ripple effects that cannot be muted by financial, military, or political aid from the outside world. Somalia is a perfect example of what happens when government and foreign assistance fails while Afghanistan is a place that could easily lose its central democratic government. Afghanistan's weak civil order rests on the cohesion found within its local tribes, not its central government. The problem is that a lack of a stable, not necessarily strong, central government leaves a power vacuum extremist groups like the Taliban can fill.
Protestors in countries, such as Iraq, complain about a lack of government services and corruption, which must be addressed over time, yet fledgling democracies often cannot meet even basic demands while they need adequate time to change. Political unrest in countries like Yemen and Afghanistan, where civil and social infrastructure is basically unable to respond to the needs of activists, will lead to very undesirable results, if leaders cannot convince protestors change is in the works. For Iraq, corruption and abuse by police forces must be addressed, but this can only happen if demonstrations stay nonviolent for the months to years it will take for complete reform. Unfortunately, the United States cannot recommit military resources to Iraq should it destabilize while a wave of regional instability means US operations will be for not, so withdrawal from Afghanistan would have to happen sooner rather than later.
Of course, the United States can be helpful during this transition period, whether or not things go right in every country, if US foreign policy moves toward a more regional strategy where military forces protect vital international interests like Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which has been irresponsibly grown over the last two years, and foreign leaders offer support for the Peoples of the region. This strategy relies less on dumping precious resources into the region and more on supporting the development of social institutes as part of an advisory role. One of the greatest threats to our influence in the new Middle East will be events like the violence seen against peaceful protestors in Bahrain where the fifth US Naval fleet is stationed. Along with American taxpayers supporting corrupt, oppressive regimes, US troops watching on as sleeping protestors are brutally attacked in the middle of the night tells Middle Easterners we fight against them.
Consequently, the Obama Administration must constantly support the Peoples of the Middle East, yet offer to work with existing and transitional governments to help them properly address protestors and build democratic institutions. In Egypt, for example, the military probably should not be the government institute negotiating union pay raises, but their weak response, i.e. go back to work, has only provoked even greater civil disorder that could eventually lead to dangerous violence. The US, however, must also be careful to avoid certain mistakes like directly interfering with domestic politics where government violence is absent. Meanwhile, westerns tend to focus on what made their Countries successful, and what they think makes them successful, instead of what is necessary for the success of specific nations. Cutting government support to make way for private industry is one view that Westerns tend to push, but private industry must be built up before existing socialist programs might be shrunk; otherwise, social unrest is certain to turn very ugly.
With the US and Western allies unable to sustain high levels of fiscally intensive intervention in the Middle East due to economic failures in their homelands and the widespread instability of the region, budding democracies will have to develop their own economies and find ways to meet the needs of their Peoples with little outside help. Where America could once offer seed money or basic funding, developing nations must look toward their own resources to build their countries. For the Peoples of these nations, their governments cannot be a source of charity; but rather, government must be built by the People to conduct the business of the People, including economic development, which takes time. Helping Middle Eastern countries focus on their human and natural resources to plan development and engage in business ventures to meet their needs essentially describes the role of outsiders. This subtly, yet significant, shift in policy and responsibility is extremely important when engaging the Middle East in the coming era.