As President Barack Obama enters office in 2009, his administration confronts a daunting set of challenges in the Middle East, including bringing an end to the Iraq war, addressing multiple unresolved tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict, developing an effective response to Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions, neutralizing continued threats posed by terrorist groups, confronting Islamist political extremism, and dealing with internal conflicts in several key countries. At the same time, rising security threats in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India may divert U.S. attention and resources from the Middle East to South Asia.
This complicated mix of issues understandably could tempt President Obama to repudiate the Bush administration’s entire approach to the Middle East and the world, including its controversial so-called freedom agenda aimed at spreading democracy in the region. Disillusionment with the meager results of the Bush freedom agenda, the negative reactions to it in the region, and the destabilizing impact it has had on the Middle East might prompt the Obama administration to shift away from discredited efforts to promote democracy. The temptation to embrace counsels to foreign policy realism and a realpolitik balance of power strategy that would focus more on ensuring stability and less on governments’ democratic performance and human rights practices may be strong. But abandoning attempts to advance democracy, freedom, and decent governance in the Middle East would be a mistake for the United States. It also would represent a retrenchment from the progres- sive values and vision for national and international security articulated by candidate Obama during the 2008 presidential election campaign. This paper analyzes recent trends in the region, attempts to draw conclusions from the results of U.S. policy, and offers core priorities for a new U.S. approach to Middle East democracy promotion.
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