What Do We Wish For in the Middle East?

There is an old saw that says, “Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.” As the demonstrations/uprisings/potential revolutions continue to spread across the Middle East, it seems to me not an inappropriate consideration for the United States and the American people as we look at all this. What exactly do we wish for in the Middle East?

Answering that question begins with a problem. Who is the “we” we are talking about? To most Americans who have little understanding or detailed interest in the region, this may be a question that goes beyond their ability to answer in anything but the most general terms, and if pressed, the answer would clearly be something like freedom and democracy in the area, conditions we hold dear and believe represent the universal aspiration of all exposed to them. This Wilsonian image is not one that “savvy” elites can openly disdain, but it does not necessarily represent what they stand for or believe is realistic to attain. Their answer would, and generally has been, more veiled and geopolitical. In essence, it boils down to a preference for stability in the region, either to keep the flow of oil moving or to protect Israel from its enemies–the two most generally ascribed goals.

These two goals–freedom and stability–may be theoretically linked, but in fact they are often at odds with one another. Democratic peace theorists maintain they are compatible, at least in the long run, since free people living in democratic societies do not make war on one another, and that thus a democratized Middle East will become a peaceful one in the process. This explanation had public “legs” during the Bush neo-conservative foreign policy years, but it rarely got translated into policy. Oil, and in their case especially Israeli, security were more important goals, and so we talked democracy (e.g. Iraq) out of one side of our mouths while supporting those who preached stability behind the curtains. The problem was that actions and words were incompatible, and the movements that started in Tunisia and have landed most recently in Bahrain and Libya have pulled the veil away and left us with the stark choice: do we prefer non-democratic, sometimes authoritarian and repressive, regimes that emphasize order and stability, or do we want democracy and freedom for people who may express that freedom in ways we consider destabilizing? What do we wish for?

Because of the way we have answered that question in the past, the implications of our answer yield cloudy projections about the future. In regard to Egypt, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon made a deal in the 1970sthat put the United States firmly behind stability (in this case, the defanging of the war potential between Egypt and Israel) by agreeing to buy off both with military subsidies, a form of bribe continued gleefully by Hosni Mubarak for thirty years. In the process, freedom and democracy for Egyptians were sublimated as American goals at the altar of geopolitics. If Egyptians today are a tad suspicious when President Obama extols the emergence of freedom and democracy in their country, it should not be entirely surprising if the average Egyptian in the street treats our pronouncement with a grain of salt. In Bahrain,we have averted our gaze from Sunni suppression of the Shii majority because of our basing agreement for the Fifth Fleet. In Yemen, we have supported autocracy because the government promises to suppress Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hiding in its remote mountains. In the past few days, the Yemeni people have gone into the streets and we worry publicly that if they are successful in their quest for freedom, it might embolden and strengthen Al Qaeda. In Libya, we can at least generally support those who are demonstrating for freedom, althoughwe have snuck quietly into bed with Muammar Qaddafi in a number of areas since he renounced nuclear weapons.

Publicly wishing for the success of those seeking freedom in the Middle East is a real policy shift for the United States. The end result of these movements, if they succeed, may be positive and stabilizing: it does not make much sense for us to profess evangelical adherence to democracy promotion if it will not. The process of moving from autocracy to democracy is not a linear or necessarily neat or stable process, however, and it is one fraught with the kinds of uncertainties that policy makers hate. What are not currently anti-American movements across the region (and it has been remarkable how little anti-Americanism has been expressed in them to this point) could turn on us, particularly if we somehow back our old buddies who are the objects of these movements. If our old friends succeed in putting the lid back on, they may reasonably wonder why we did not come more forthrightly to their defense and wonder about our steadfastness in the future. Our Israeli allies are particularly concerned that the movements could turn anti-Israeli, probably one reason they have, quite appropriately, kept their mouths shut through all this to date. And there is always the question of the oil.

All this suggests, as the old saw at the beginning states, is that we need to be careful what we wish for in all this. We are apparently backing the aspirations of those in the steeets, at least partly because it is hard to back the tank drivers and infantrymen who execute repression in places like Libya we see on global television. We wish for freedom but must recognize that we may not like what we get, at least in the short run. Behind the curtain, we also wish for stability and want to hedge our bets by supporting those who have maintained stability for so long. But what if they lose? Or more embarassingly, what if such efforts get “Wikileaked” and we are exposed as Oz-like humbugs or hypocrites? Which is better, which is worse?

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