If we can glean anything from the tumultuous events in the Middle East, it’s that the despotic regimes of the region are – perhaps indefinitely – vulnerable to the revolutionary fervors they have viciously repressed for decades.
In the wake of the toppling of regimes in Tunis and Cairo, we in the West confront a situation in which the peoples of the Middle East finally may have gained the confidence to demand the fullest form of consensual government: democracy.
With events moving so rapidly, one cannot help but wonder: Is Damascus, Syria, or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, or Amman, Jordan, next? Scenarios seem to abound by the day, each with complicated implications for American foreign policy.
On the one hand, as a nation born out of a revolution for freedom, America must always stand with those who seek their own liberty. And, indeed, American presidents – from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan to George W. Bush – have energetically supported what our 43rd president called the “freedom agenda.”
The Obama administration must do more than just celebrate the courage and passion that toppled the Ben-Ali and Mubarak regimes. America’s national interests in the Middle East consist of the promotion of freedom, as expressed in free and fair elections, civil liberties, open markets and jobs. We can influence Egypt and the region more broadly through our military ties, links to civil society and the promise of economic assistance and free trade. Fortunately, fledgling democrats in the region have a ready-made example of the kind of democracy we wish to replicate: Israel.
Though imperfect, Israel represents the robust manifestation of a healthy democracy, with its free press, rule of law and political echelons in constant self-regulation. Against the dark hostile forces that surround it, Israel has time and again woven a narrative founded on pluralism and Western values.
Perhaps recent events will once and for all put the lie to the misguided notion that it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -rather than tyrannical and authoritarian rulers – that lies at the heart of the region’s instability.
On the other hand, America’s support for democracy in the Middle East poses large risks. Once unleashed, democracy serves as no guarantee against the popular election of radical Islamist forces, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Contrary to some assertions, there is thus far no evidence that Islamic extremists who gain power through the ballot box actually become moderated by the demands of governing.
At this point, it is too early to determine how much of a role the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, will play in Egypt’s next government. And a democratic Egypt may not necessarily mean that our decades-long ally will seek the restoration of the Muslim caliphate. But we must assume that the Brotherhood’s staunchly anti-Israel, anti- Western, Islamist ideology will influence Egypt and, by extension, its neighbors.
In Turkey, decades of secular governance were replaced at the ballot box several years ago by an Islamic government. This has resulted in a realigned Turkish foreign policy less interested in cooperation with the West and increasingly active and unhelpful to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Turkish relations with Israel, once an important bridge between the Jewish state and the Islamic world, have become seriously frayed. Instead, Turkey is cozying to the despots in Iran even while encouraging people’s revolts against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other moderates in the region. The Obama administration must not turn its focus away from the real dangers that may yet set the region ablaze.
The central antagonist in the Middle East today is Iran. Unfortunately, the Islamic republic is not Egypt, and the theocrats of Tehran are not likely to fall. Worse, the eviction of authoritarian regimes in Cairo and Tunis will likely only further entrench the mullahs, whose callous brutality toward their own people knows no limitations. Having misplayed our opportunity to support democratic forces in Iran in 2009, the harsh reality is that the Iranian regime remains undeterred in its designs for nuclear weapons and regional hegemony.
With the potential for indefinite populist unrest in the region, it is entirely possible that in the wake of further political upheavals, Iran will be joined by new Islamist allies that complement its existing proxies in Gaza and Lebanon.
If an even broader constellation of hostile radical satellites traveling in the Iranian orbit materializes, the United States must be prepared to work with our remaining friends and allies in the region to stymie the Iranian front’s worst intentions.
Indeed, we must firmly oppose these forces, while unmistakably supporting – in word and deed – the kind of democratic values found in Israel. Picking fights over settlement policy is not the way to show support for our increasingly threatened ally.
America must always stand for freedom, pluralism and human rights, but we must not be naive enough to think that our democratic experience will repeat itself wherever democracy arises. And when democracy elevates Islamist extremists to power, we must prepare to confront their aggressive plans with stalwart resistance.
By Norm Coleman, a former Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota and CEO of the American Action Network and the American Action Forum.