Obama's Mideast Moment of Truth

An anti-government protester gestures during clashes with police in Cairo on January 26, 2011. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters-Landov

What do the mass protests in Egypt and the leaked documents about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have in common? They show that the Middle East is spinning out of America’s control. For decades, Washington has backstopped Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship and chaperoned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Today both efforts are on the brink of failure. No wonder that intermingled with the pro-democracy rhetoric coming out of the Obama administration is a truckload of fear.

It’s time for Obama to choose. George W. Bush spoke endlessly about Middle Eastern democracy, but at the end of the day, he opted for American control. He never seriously pressured Mubarak or other pro-U.S. autocrats. And when Hamas won the freest election in Palestinian history in 2006, his administration pushed Fatah to overturn the results by force.

For two years Obama has hewed to that same policy, but it is starting to unravel. It’s not just that thousands of Egyptians are in the streets demanding Mubarak’s resignation. It’s that the WikiLeaks-type document dump recently obtained by Al-Jazeera proves what many Palestinians already knew: that Palestinian leaders are cut off from the people. Ever since deciding not to honor the results of the 2006 Palestinian election, the U.S. and Israel have created a mini-Egypt in the West Bank: an autocratic, sometimes brutal, client regime that stays in power more because it is showered with Western largesse than because it inspires popular loyalty. That client regime is now considerably weaker as a result of the Al-Jazeera leaks. It’s not just that Palestinian negotiators offered far-reaching concessions to Israel; it’s that they did so without input from their people, and still got nowhere. In protest, some Palestinian students last week occupied the PLO’s offices in London. If there’s another Palestinian uprising in the next few years, don’t be surprised if it is directed not merely at Israel, but at the Palestinian Authority as well.

It’s time for Obama to stop insulating Mubarak and Mahmoud Abbas from a reckoning with their own people. For starters, it’s less and less likely to work. While it’s possible that dictators will one day figure out how to turn 21st--century communication technology to their advantage, for the time being Twitter, Facebook, Al-Jazeera, and WikiLeaks are undermining top-down political control, as they’ve done this week in the West Bank and Egypt. Secondly, as Natan Sharansky once liked to argue, Arab tyranny ultimately is not good for Israel. A big reason for America’s propping up of Abbas and Mubarak has been the fear that if they fall, their successors will prove more hostile to the Jewish state. That’s certainly a risk. Although the two main leaders of Hamas in 2010 stated that they would accept the results of a Palestinian referendum endorsing a two-state solution, the group’s charter still demands Israel’s destruction. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement, is not Al Qaeda, but its leaders are unlikely to hobnob with Benjamin Netanyahu the way Mubarak does.

But in considering Israel’s interests, Washington has focused too much on how compliant Arab leaders are and not enough on how much legitimacy they enjoy. Mubarak maintained diplomatic relations with Israel, but he also encouraged the Egyptian media to demonize the Jewish state—in part to deflect popular anger from his own misrule. Abbas and his negotiating team have shown an impressive willingness to compromise on issues like Jerusalem and refugees, but given their lack of popular legitimacy, they might not be able to bring the Palestinian people along.

Middle Eastern tyrannies aren’t falling the way George W. Bush predicted. America isn’t the hammer; if anything, we’re the anvil. But Bush’s argument that Middle Eastern democracy could help drain the ideological swamp in which Al Qaeda grew may yet be proved true. Osama bin Laden has never looked more irrelevant than he does this week, as tens of thousands march across the Middle East not for jihad, but for democracy, electricity, and a decent job. It’s a time for hope, not fear. America can survive having less control, as long as the Arab people have more.

Beinart is senior political writer for The Daily Beast.