There will be time for handwringing later. When the current turmoil in the Middle East settles down, there will be apt opportunity for examining the seeds of the crisis and answering the same question faced by old Soviet hands in the wake of the Berlin Wall collapse: Why did many not see it coming?
To foreign policy pundits who have long seen a bleak future for U.S. interests in the Arab street’s demand for democracy, the genie has been let out of the bottle. The challenge is now to salvage these interests as decades of U.S. investment in regional stagnation unravels before our eyes.
As the administration now ponders its next move in reaction to events, the eyes of the Arab world are upon it. It is not just the drama playing out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that is capturing the region’s attention. The entire deliberative process of Washington is being closely observed and scrutinized by the Arab street.
While it is fashionable to bemoan waning U.S. influence in the Middle East and question our leverage, the fact is that Washington’s every word and action during the coming weeks and months will be a factor in shaping the next chapter in Middle East history. It is the reality of our global position, and the still undiminished power of the American democratic example.
So far, the administration is perceived as attempting to straddle the fine line between the devil we know and future democratic uncertainty. In this wobbling, the Arab street senses lingering traces of old biases and prejudices clouded by a western perception of its own democratic exceptionalism.
A half-century since communities in this very country fought to claim their own constitutional rights, and now with democracy flourishing in far flung corners of the globe, it is almost inconceivable that the universality of freedom and democracy could still be an issue for debate in the West, but the Arab street has yet to be convinced otherwise.
It is now time to put this matter to rest. The entire Washington foreign policy community must stand unequivocally behind those in the Middle East demanding an end to authoritarianism. For the current administration, it is a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” moment. Admittedly, such a principled stance would hold no guarantees for our interests in the long term but it would be a downpayment toward mitigating the effects of policies at odds with our own core values and reclaiming our status as a beacon for freedom and democracy.
A too cautious approach by the Obama White House – one fraught with concern about what comes next – while natural, risks being seen by the Arab street to deny them the very rights that brought the region to its current impasse. It will also leave the United States even more vulnerable when the next domino falls, for this is not only about Tunisia and Egypt.
The battle lines drawn up over these past two weeks in Tahrir Square represent not just two sides in an old Cairene debate but two sides in an old regional argument: that between freedom and autocracy. Since the U.S.-backed overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran over half a century ago, the United States has, unfortunately, been perceived as on the wrong side of this issue.
After decades of mistrust, the Arab street will likely continue to view U.S. policy as self-serving, no matter what position the administration ultimately takes. For pursuing our national interests, we need not be apologetic, but if it comes at the expense of our own values, the ultimate cost may prove too high in the long run. It may be too early to determine the trajectory of current events in the Middle East today, but it is not difficult to see how we arrived at this juncture.
Today, the administration has been given an opportunity to place the United States on the right side of history, to begin making amends for what George Bush declared in 2003 was “60 years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East.” For President Obama, it is also a personal moment, to prove the sincerity of his own convictions stated in Cairo in 2009 that freedom and democracy “are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
By Owen Kirby, who served as a senior adviser and director of political programs in the Department of State’s Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative during the Bush administration. From 2009-2010, he was a senior governance adviser for the Department of State in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.