Second chance in the Middle East

2011-02-26 12:57

Sometimes in life you get a second chance to get something right after getting it wrong the first time.

The perception I get from discussions in Washington, with independent analysts and people in and close to the administration, is that the Obama team remains caught and wavering between two approaches.

One is to forge ahead with a bold new policy that responds to the historic changes now rippling through the Middle East.

The other is to broadly maintain established old patterns of American policy, especially ­vis-a-vis Arab autocrats and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The United States government has responded rather cautiously to the extraordinary revolt now taking place across many Arab countries, expressing generic but not passionate support for those who demand freedom and democracy, and mildly criticising Arab governments that use force to put down their home-grown rebellions.

Privately, it turns out, the US has spoken to Arab leaders more forthrightly about some of their behaviour – corruption, for instance – and US President Barack Obama is said to be much more supportive of freedom-seeking Arab citizens than is the impression one gets from hearing Washington officials speak in public.

The logical response one would expect from the US is to come out forcefully for Arab governance systems that reflect the principle of the consent of the governed.

Washington would stand comfortably and naturally with Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, Jordanians, Libyans and others who brave beatings, imprisonment and bullets to achieve their rights, proclaiming in Arabic the moral and functional equivalent of that great American cry: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Instead, the US seems so conditional that it loses its moral and political clout.

It is understandable that Washington would want to maintain and protect some of its core national interests in the region, such as access to military bases, energy flows, and the incumbency of “moderate” Arab governments that do not threaten Israel.

Yet, for any honest person, the primary lesson of the past two generations must be that these foundational principles of US foreign policy in the Middle East have mostly failed or even backfired on Washington.

The evidence is startlingly clear and consistent: “moderate” Arab regimes are increasingly rejected or overthrown by their own people; mass Arab, Iranian and Turkish criticism of Israel has increased steadily due to the behaviour of Israel that the US shields from criticism (as it did again this week in vetoing the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements and colonisation);

US military activity in the region from local or other bases is a main cause of anti-American mass resentment and radicalism and a prime instigator of a new generation of al-Qaeda-style terrorists; and energy flows are not an issue because they remain almost impervious to ideology and politics.

The rolling revolts that now work their way through the Arab world are an opportunity for all concerned to review their past policies and look at how they deal with the Arab region and its non-Arab neighbours in Iran, Turkey and Israel.

Arabs fighting for freedom should be supported emphatically, rather than being offered half-hearted support because of concerns about how free and democratic Arabs would deal with Israel.

Holding Arab rights hostage to Israeli fears and the frenzy of pro-Israeli lobby groups in the US have been calamities for Arabs, Israelis and Americans alike.

Now is the time to correct that mistake by promoting democracies that can only be a win-win situation for all concerned, including Israel and the US.

It is ethically unfair and politically counter-productive to withhold support for freedom-seeking Arabs because Iranians for their own reasons turned their revolution into an authoritarian state.

The third issue is the tendency among many in the West to dampen their support for Arab democracy for fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists will gain power.

Denying the majority of Arabs their human rights on the basis of unproven fears about what some Islamists hypothetically might do in a future democratic society is the height of absurdity and unfairness.

These are mistakes that the US, Israel and some other Western and Arab regimes repeatedly made in the past half century, bringing us to this point of a mass Arab revolt.

Everyone has a second chance now to avoid repeating the same silly mistakes and short-sighted policies.

» ?Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon

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