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Can America Rise to the Occasion in the Middle East?

This Is an Important Moment We Need to Get Right

SOURCE: AP/Muhammed Muheisen

Antigovernment protesters shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 27, 2011.

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The revolution in the Middle East and North Africa is one nobody saw coming. It is as if the region is standing at a huge fork in the road. One path leads toward democracy and stability while the other leads to unprecedented chaos. This is a once-in-a-generation moment. As a nation we need to do everything at our disposal to help get it right to the degree that we can.

The spreading protests across the region are remarkably egalitarian, shaking autocrats regardless of their relationship with the West. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a longstanding U.S. partner in the peace process with Israel, has already fallen to the democratic aspirations of his people. So, too, has President Ben Ali of Tunisia. We are engaged in a military conflict in Libya that may or may not oust long-time despot Moammar Qaddafi. And protests continue to confront a nemesis such as President Bashar al-Assad in Syria as well as allies in Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

Much of the public debate here is about democracy. But the issues discussed behind closed doors are also driving the U.S. approach:

  • Will Iran try to take advantage of the unrest and upheaval to advance its own aims in the region?
  • Will democracy prove to be the antidote to Al Qaeda or will it provide terrorists with a wide swathe of lawless societies from which to operate?
  • How hard a line should Washington take with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia given the U.S. naval base in Bahrain and our continued addiction to Saudi oil?
  • How does all of this impact Israel?

These are not esoteric questions. One of the key but largely unspoken rationales for our intervention in Libya was a fear that refuges fleeing fighting in eastern Libya would destabilize Egypt as it tries to make a democratic transition. This development would have posed a greater strategic risk for our interests (and for Israel’s). It might have also emboldened Iran to be more provocative while leaving Al Qaeda with a failed state from which to operate.

The Middle East is now a highly fluid series of deeply interlocked challenges. And thankfully, the administration’s approach has not been driven by looking at any one country in isolation but by trying to address all of the pieces of the puzzle at the same time.

The question is: What do our leaders need to do—to the degree that we can influence events—to help guide the region down the path to democracy and stability instead of chaos?

First and foremost, we need to channel the late Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Ohio, who argued that politics should stop at the water’s edge. In other words, we need to dial down the partisan sniping here at home. The president and Congress need to work together. If we get it wrong in the Middle East, both parties and the American people will reap that ill reward for years to come.

Accordingly, the administration should pull in members of Congress, former national security officials of both parties, and other foreign policy experts on a regular basis. These should not be briefings but discussions about how best to navigate the incredibly tricky path before us. The administration needs to be less insular in its decision making and members of Congress need to avoid the cheap thrill of feeding the 24-hour news machine pithy tweets and a steady diet of second guesses.

Indeed, it is truly astounding that we may be lurching toward a government shutdown in the middle of the most important events on the international stage in decades. Members of both parties need to understand full well that the American public will view our politicians as spoiled 12-year-olds if they shutter the government at this moment.

Is partisan gridlock really the message we want to broadcast to protesters across the Middle East as they risk their lives fighting for the same freedoms we already enjoy?

Second, our strategy needs to be clearly communicated to the public. It is encouraging that President Barack Obama is taking to the airwaves tonight to explain our military involvement in Libya and our stakes across the region. The president needs to be communicator in chief during this period and he needs to speak honestly of the risks and rewards as we move forward.

At all costs, the administration needs to avoid the trap of thinking that its strategy is too complex to be understood by the general public. If you can’t explain your strategy, it probably isn’t a good one.

By the same token, pundits should stop the ridiculous clamoring for a clearly identified endgame for every move the president makes. We are seeing an entire region in upheaval. We have seen protests in 21 countries with a population of more than 425 million people stretching across 4,800 miles. Things will be messy and uncertain for some time.

Finally, and perhaps most dauntingly, the United States needs to manage its relationships with several longstanding Middle East allies while not betraying democratic aspirations in these countries. Nations such as Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have long been key partners in the region but we cannot let that mute our criticisms of what are highly autocratic systems.

The administration realized that reform had gained powerful momentum in both Tunisia and Egypt and that it would be counterproductive to be seen as defending antidemocratic regimes. The strategic stakes are even higher in a country like Saudi Arabia. But we need to keep the heat on some of our friends to rule far more democratically even when it produces discomfort for all involved.

The Middle East has been hurtled through a period of incredible change during the last three months. Millions of people have marched in the face of armed opposition to speak out and demand their rights. There can be no better time for the United States to demonstrate its own maturity as a democracy by speaking clearly, listening to a diversity of voices, cooling the partisan rhetoric, and understanding that such historic moments are few and far between.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative.

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