Change in the Middle East: Its Implications for US Policy

By Singh, Michael | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Change in the Middle East: Its Implications for US Policy


Singh, Michael, Harvard International Review


To say that the Middle East has reached a turning point would be missing the point. The Middle East is hurtling in a new direction, and the United States must catch up or be left behind. The remarkable events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and elsewhere have shaken a regional order that has stood relatively undisturbed since 1979 and thrown into disarray US interests that only a few months ago seemed secure. These events call into question Washington's post-Cold War approach to the Middle East and demand a reevaluation of US policy in the region.

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During the Cold War, Washington supported authoritarian regimes in the Middle East as part of a broader strategy to defeat the Soviet Union and global communism. At stake in this contest, as far as US policymakers were concerned, was not simply geopolitical preeminence, but the fate of human liberty. Opposition movements were frequently seen, rightly or wrongly, as cat's paws for Moscow, and the local depredations of friendly dictators were excused for support in the global struggle. When the Soviet Union was defeated, the overarching Cold War objective had vanished, yet the US approach to the region did not change. Authoritarian regimes maintained a rough alignment of interests with the United States, while Washington did little to address the deficit of human and political rights across the region.

US policymakers have long recognized the problems inherent in this approach. It places our interests in opposition to our values. Even the benefits to our interests are questionable; it has long been recognized that over the long term democracies are more reliable and peaceful allies than are autocracies. It was this contradiction that led Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to observe, in 2005, that "for 60 years the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East--and we achieved neither." Yet, with few exceptions, US policymakers have found it difficult Co navigate the short-term tradeoffs necessary to truly elevate the promotion of democracy and human rights in the Middle East to the top of the policy agenda.

Yet, in failing to take the opportunity afforded by the fall of the Soviet Union to shift toward greater support for political reform and democratization in the region, the United States planted the seeds of its current dilemma. Washington's support for leaders such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali, widely viewed as harshly repressive by their citizens, fostered anti-Americanism. And US policymakers' failure to build a broader foundation of support in these and other countries meant that US interests in the region were placed in the hands of individual leaders and their circles, with few ardent advocates otherwise. Taken together, these choices have increased the chances that the political turmoil in the region will at least for a time set back US interests. For this reason, recent events in the region represent not an intelligence failure, as some analysts and members of Congress have suggested, but a policy failure. As is so often the case in foreign policy crises, US policymakers were aware of the potential problem--prospects for serious domestic turmoil afflicting authoritarian regimes--but they did not treat the issue with urgency, subordinating it instead to other matters. Such was the road that led to the Obama administration's hesitation and inconsistency when faced with the ouster of erstwhile authoritarian allies in Tunis and Cairo.

With this context in mind, the United States must act amid the region's turbulence to put its interests on a more sustainable trajectory. This requires that Washington devise an approach that better accounts for the risks posed by persistent authoritarianism and the rampant corruption and economic maladies that accompany it. Even with policies in place to address these issues, however, the turmoil currently gripping the Middle East may persist for some time, and the affected governments may be weakened commensurately. …

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