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Four Things Obama Needs to Do in the Middle East

By / 4.21.2010

In a recent piece, I discussed the growing sense of “Bush nostalgia” among Arab reformers. Such nostalgia has less to do with George W. Bush and more to do with the period of democratic promise the Middle East experienced in 2004-5, partly a result of aggressive, but short-lived, efforts to put pressure on authoritarian regimes.

For its part, the Obama administration has shown little real interest in democratization in the Arab world, falling back on the “pragmatic” neo-realism of the Clinton and first Bush administrations. Compared to the destructive policies of his predecessor, President Obama’s approach seems a breath of fresh air. But his foreign policy vision, while certainly sensible, has so far been remarkably conventional and unimaginative. Perhaps that’s what was initially needed. Now, however, is the time for bolder, more creative policy making. Here are four things Obama can – and should – do in the Middle East to advance U.S. interests and ideals:

  • Recognize the region’s changing balance of power. Traditional allies like Egypt and Jordan (two of the world’s largest U.S. aid recipients) are losing influence. Increasingly authoritarian, erratic and perceived as excessively pro-American, they have little credibility with Arab audiences. On the other hand, emerging powers like Turkey and Qatar are pursuing independent foreign policies and maintaining positive relations with both the West and the “rejectionist” camp (Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah). Not surprisingly, both countries, seen as “honest brokers,” have played a major role in mediating regional conflicts and supporting dialogue efforts, including on the Syrian-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian, Hamas-Fatah and internal Lebanese tracks. The U.S. should encourage their efforts, keeping in mind that they may be uniquely well-positioned to exert influence on Iran and Syria.
  • Promote Turkish accession to the EU. Turkey is the closest thing the Middle East has to a “model,” one of only two countries in the world led by a democratically elected Islamist party. According to a 2009 survey, 64 percent of Arab respondents in seven countries believe “Turkey’s EU membership prospects make Turkey an attractive partner for reform in the Arab world.” Considering its growing regional importance, the U.S. cannot afford for Turkey to turn inward and become embroiled in conflict between its secularist military and Islamist-leaning government. For a time, Turkey’s desire to join the EU provided incentives to implement wide-ranging legal and political reforms. However, as the EU drags its feet on accession talks, and Turks lose hope in EU membership, the reform process looks less encouraging than ever. Turkey must, however, remain enmeshed in Western institutions and partnerships. The Obama administration should use its leverage with European allies to ensure the accession process moves forward.
  • Begin strategic engagement with nonviolent Islamist groups. In most Arab countries, Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, are the largest, most influential opposition groups. But Obama has so far failed to engage them, despite his emphasis on “dialogue” with diverse actors. Engagement would serve several purposes, discussed in detail here, including information-gathering, improving our credibility with Arab publics and putting pressure on autocratic regimes to open up. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or another senior official, could begin by giving a major speech on the U.S. and political Islam (something which the Clinton administration did on several occasions), stating unequivocally that the U.S. will accept democratic outcomes, even if that means the election of Islamist parties. The State Department should also issue a directive explicitly permitting State Department employees, including ambassadors in the region, to meet with and incorporate members of Islamist organizations in their programming.
  • Embrace “positive conditionality.” The U.S. gives hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Arab authoritarian regimes. Rather than cutting aid, which is unlikely to be politically viable, the U.S. could offer large packages in additional assistance, conditioned on meeting a series of explicit benchmarks on democratization. If the country failed to meet these benchmarks, the aid would be withheld and carried over to a reform “endowment” for the next fiscal year. This way, the more governments rejected the aid, the greater the incentive would be to accept it in future years.

None of these four “steps” are particularly revolutionary. But that’s the point: the Obama administration could take action immediately – if it had the political will. With the troop drawdown in Iraq, and the Iranian nuclear threat, there may be a temptation to wait for a better time. But, in the Middle East, the better time, sadly, never seems to come.

If anything, a confluence of factors appears to be converging, suggesting the time to act is now. There are critical elections in Egypt and Jordan coming up in 2010 (and 2011). For the first time in Egypt, there is an inspiring national figure, Mohamed ElBaradei, who seems capable of uniting a notoriously fractious opposition behind a common vision for reform. Egypt, along with Algeria and Tunisia, will be facing succession struggles sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, internal tensions in Turkey seem to be rising, with the threat of escalation looming in the background. In other words, this is a difficult time of transition in the Middle East and the U.S. will need to do considerably more than just tread water.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Progressive Policy Institute.