A regional strategy for democracy in the Middle East


By Zalmay Khalilzad,

President Obama has reportedly settled on a country-specific strategy for the Middle East uprisings. Instead of crafting a regional plan, the United States will deal with protests for democracy and freedom in each state on its own terms. This approach is inadequate to both the challenges and the opportunities arising from the political turbulence.

The administration’s approach so far has yielded mixed results at best. On the positive side, the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt departed peacefully. Steady transitions to democracy appear to be underway, though the situations in both countries are still in flux. In Bahrain, U.S. pressure initially persuaded the ruling monarchy to cease attacks and engage the opposition politically (though the extent to which the regime will liberalize remains unknown).

Events elsewhere are more troubling. Protests are escalating against American partners in Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and some of the Gulf states. It is unclear whether these regimes will be able to reach understandings with their opposition movements without greater American involvement. The arrival of Saudi forces in Bahrain suggests that the Obama administration is losing influence to those in the Gulf who advocate a crackdown. Moreover, the Obama administration has failed to offer opposition movements in countries with anti-American regimes — notably Libya — sufficient support to prevail. The administration has also shown little inclination toward a comprehensive support strategy for the opposition in Iran and Syria.

A country-specific strategy maintains U.S. flexibility and counters the image of American “meddling” in the Middle East, preserving, as reportedly characterized by President Obama, the “completely organic” nature of the uprisings. Yet this thinking has two major flaws.

First, it discounts the link between U.S. policy in one situation and outcomes elsewhere. Just as protests beginning in Tunisia inspired revolts across the Middle East, so too will the American approach to each uprising have ramifications in other countries.

Second, the strategy is inherently reactive. It allows us to manage breaking developments but undermines our ability to shape events proactively even as regimes and reformers are watching our actions and drawing lessons. If we are to avoid instability while putting hostile regimes on the defensive, we need a strategy that allows us to take the initiative.

The United States should adopt a proactive regional strategy that differentiates among transitional states, friendly authoritarians and anti-American dictatorships. In Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, the United States should steer the transitions underway toward full democratic consolidation. In Iraq, we need to assist in the implementation of the recent power-sharing agreement and prod the government to deal with corruption and improve services. In Egypt and Tunisia, we can increase the odds of stable democracies emerging by leveling the playing field between moderate, secular democrats and their Islamist and sectarian opponents. We can do so by making sure good election laws are put in place and by providing liberal parties and civil society groups with assistance to counter the aid that Iranian and others provide to Islamist parties.

In friendly but repressive states, the United States should push ruling regimes to open space for responsible actors and oversee political reforms. We should encourage the regimes in Morocco and the Persian Gulf to evolve into constitutional monarchies while pressuring leaders in Algeria and Yemen to strengthen their parliaments, engage the opposition, and implement and abide by constitutional limits. Without such transitions, these countries risk increased instability.

The Middle East uprisings that hold the greatest promise are in anti-American dictatorships. The immediate challenge is to ensure the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Steps to help that happen include the establishment of a no-fly zone; support and assistance for the authorities in liberated areas, humanitarian and military aid for friendly rebels; and outreach to elements inside the Gaddafi coalition, including tribes. The Arab League’s call for a no-fly zone should bolster U.N. Security Council support for tougher action. By moving quickly on all these fronts, the United States and its allies can begin to reach an understanding with Libyans opposed to Gaddafi.

Without greater outside support, Gaddafi’s regime is likely to crush its opposition, and Libya is likely to emerge as a rogue pariah run by a vindictive Gaddafi. Other dictatorships would then be emboldened to squelch their democratic opponents and resist liberalization. Our failure to act now will force a costlier intervention down the line.

By contrast, Gaddafi’s overthrow and the consolidation of a liberal, pro-American regime would bolster prospects for reform in Iran and Syria by countering Iranian propaganda that the current revolts are Islamist in character and directed only at partners of the United States.

We can follow up with a variety of steps to foment democratic revolutions against Tehran and Damascus, beginning with clarion calls for change. These include: training and support for opposition forces in and outside the countries; pressure directed against regime officials who attack their own people, including targeted sanctions and referrals in international tribunals; surrogate broadcasting and other pro-democracy messaging; funds for striking workers; and covert efforts to induce defections by regime and security officials.

We are at a key juncture. As in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the dysfunction of the Middle East today generates the most threatening challenges to the international community. The largely peaceful, youth-oriented, democratic revolutions across the region present an opportunity to catalyze a fundamental transformation. Partnering with other responsible actors, we should take reasonable steps to facilitate and consolidate this shift in the Middle East.

The writer, a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration.