A regional strategy for democracy in the Middle East
By Zalmay Khalilzad
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
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.
High stakes over Bahrain
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The Obama administration and its support for democratic change in the Middle East has been on a collision course with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other traditional monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The crunch finally came this week with a sharp break over how to deal with protest in Bahrain.
The stakes in this latest crisis are high, even by Middle East standards, for it contains all the region's volatile ingredients: tension between Saudis and Iranians, between Sunni Muslims and Shiites, and between democratic reformers and status-quo powers.
Underlying this combustible mixture is the world's most important strategic commodity, Persian Gulf oil. How's that for a witch's brew?
U.S. officials have been arguing that Bahrain's Sunni monarchy must make political compromises to give more power to the Shiite majority there. The most emphatic statement came last weekend from Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who said during a visit to Bahrain that its "baby steps" toward reform weren't enough and that the kingdom should step up its negotiations with the opposition.
This American enthusiasm for change has been anathema to the conservative regimes of the Gulf, and on Monday they backed Bahrain's ruling Khalifa family with military force, marching about 2,000 troops up the causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. A senior Saudi official told me the intervention was needed to protect Bahrain's financial district and other key facilities from violent demonstrations. He warned that radical, Iranian-backed leaders were becoming more active in the protests.
"We don't want Iran 14 miles off our coast, and that's not going to happen," said the Saudi official. U.S. officials counter that Iran, so far, has been only a minor player in the Bahrain protests and that Saudi military intervention could backfire by strengthening Iran's hand.
"There is a serious breach" between the Gulf countries and Washington over the issue, warned a second Saudi official. "We're not going in [to Bahrain] to shoot people, we're going in to keep a system in place," he said.
The Bahrain issue is the most important U.S.-Saudi disagreement in decades, and it could signal a fundamental change in policy. The Obama administration, in effect, is altering America's long-standing commitment to the status quo in the Gulf, believing that change in Bahrain — as in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya — is inevitable and desirable.
The split reflects fundamental differences in strategic outlook. The Gulf regimes have come to mistrust Obama, seeing him as a weak president who will sacrifice traditional allies in his eagerness be "on the right side of history." They liken Obama's rejection of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to Jimmy Carter's 1979 abandonment of the shah of Iran.
The crackup was predicted by a top UAE sheik in a February meeting with two visiting former U.S. officials. According to notes made during the conversation, the UAE official said: "We and the Saudis will not accept a Shiite government in Bahrain. And if your president says to the Khalifas what he said to Mubarak [to leave office], it will cause a break in our relationship with the U.S." The UAE official warned that Gulf nations were "looking East" — to China, India and Turkey — for alternative security assistance.
The Obama White House hasn't yielded to such pleas and threats from the Gulf. U.S. officials believe the Saudis and others have no good option to the United States as a guarantor of security. They note that military and intelligence contacts are continuing, despite the sharp disagreement over Bahrain.
In the end, this is a classic liberal-conservative argument about how best to achieve stability. The White House believes that security crackdowns won't work any better in Bahrain than they did in Egypt or Tunisia — and that it's time to embrace a process of democratic transition across the region. The Gulf monarchies and sheikdoms counter that concessions will only empower more radicalism — and that the big beneficiaries, in the end, will be Islamic radicals in Iran and al-Qaeda.
The trick is finding a formula for transition that doesn't destabilize the Gulf and the global economy. White House officials talk as if this is an evolutionary process, but they should know better: As they saw in Egypt, change comes as a sudden shock — a nonlinear event that, in the case of the Gulf, will affect global energy and financial markets. Obama's goal should be "progressive pragmatism," with an emphasis on both those words.
© 2011 The Washington Post Company
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