The Right Way to Promote Arab Reform

Courtesy Reuters


Since taking office four years ago, President George W. Bush has often spoken of the need for political reform in the Arab world. Ordinary Arabs, however, have had good reason to be skeptical of his much-discussed "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East." After all, their region has been mired in political stasis for years, thanks in part to U.S. support for many of the Middle East's dictators. For most of the last five decades, Washington has done little to promote Arab democratization, relying instead on the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries to help protect vital U.S. interests in the neighborhood.

This skepticism, however, may no longer be warranted. On the morning of September 11, 2001, U.S. priorities in the Middle East changed. Suddenly, the Bush administration came to see democratization, which it had previously ranked below security and stability in its list of concerns for the Arab world, as the critical means by which to achieve these other goals. Indeed, the toppling of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon fundamentally shifted the underlying assumption of U.S. Middle East policy. Arab authoritarianism could no longer be viewed as a source of stability; instead, it was the primary threat to it. To "drain the swamp" that had incubated Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden, it became critical to promote political liberalization, even democratization, in the Middle East, and this goal became a central feature of U.S. national security policy.

Even before this shift, Washington had already begun to try to promote reform in the Middle East--albeit quietly, and never with anything like Bush's rhetorical zeal or fixation on democracy. The United States had, in recent years, pursued three different approaches toward the Arab world: punishing its enemies with diplomatic isolation, sanctions, and invasion; bolstering civil society; and promoting economic development in friendly states. Assuming that these last two tactics would gently drive political liberalization, the

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