The upheaval engulfing the Arab world presents the United States with two choices. Washington can either embrace change, stand on the sidelines, and accept whatever results. Or it can intervene, insert itself in the process, and try to shape the outcome. Advocating the latter would be to assume reserves of power, not to mention wisdom, at Washington’s disposal. At the moment, however, the U.S. possesses neither.
But history, too, argues for restraint. Consider what several decades of outside meddling in the Islamic world has accomplished. Out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I came a new map of the vast region, designed not to promote the well-being of its inhabitants, but to satisfy European (chiefly British) interests. The Allies drew boundaries, created nation-states, and installed monarchs to ensure Western access to oil and control of the Suez Canal.
British success proved fleeting, however. The many tasks proved expensive, and in the wake of World War II, cash-strapped Britain devolved its responsibilities onto the U.S., which had grown hungry for global leadership. Although American aims differed little from Great Britain’s, the Cold War enabled Washington to camouflage its purposes. It portrayed Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh as a communist dupe to justify his overthrow, depicted Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser as a puppet of the Kremlin rather than as an Arab nationalist, and endorsed Israel’s image of itself as a lonely bastion of democracy in a sea of Soviet-armed authoritarians.
By the end of the 20th century, Washington’s ambitions had ballooned rapidly. Yet the unintended consequences of America’s informal empire, which began as a trickle, rushed on as an unwelcome flood. Chief among them: the emergence in Iran of an Islamic Republic deeply hostile to the United States; Israeli insecurities finding expression in a penchant for an excessive reliance on force, recklessly and aggressively employed; the rise of widespread anti-Americanism throughout much of the Islamic world; and the incubation of radical Islamist organizations committed to expelling the U.S., purging the region of its corrupt local rulers, and unifying the umma.
Then came the financial crisis of 2008. The ensuing economic malaise in the States thrust domestic priorities to the top of its national agenda. Accordingly, rather than promising a transformation of the Islamic world, as his predecessor had, President Obama sought—with little success—to extricate his country from the mess that decades of American folly had helped create.
But herein lies the real opportunity afoot: the ongoing Arab uprising offers Obama, once and for all, the chance to set American strategy straight in the Middle East. The surging upheaval, having downed two Arab tyrants and threatening several more, affirms what popular opposition to the mullahs ruling Iran had already suggested: especially among young Muslims, modernity has great allure. To a very considerable degree, the 20-somethings of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran want what 20-somethings in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere in the West want: political freedom and economic opportunity. By comparison, what the radical Islamists are selling—an invitation to live in the 15th century—possesses exceedingly limited appeal.
Only a fool would declare what these demands for change will ultimately produce. Will these revolutions prevail, yielding institutions akin to democracy? Or will military rule, or some far worse form of authoritarianism, result? Regardless, this much is self-evident: Washington’s longstanding inclination to foster stability by throwing in with anti-democratic elites has now outlived its usefulness. From those working alongside the Potomac, in a contest that pits a stagnant yesterday versus an uncertain but potentially better tomorrow, the risks of supporting change are far less than the dangers of sticking fingers (via quiet CIA backing or public, military interventions) into the gears of history that are churning faster and faster across the Middle East.
But what does the world’s superpower sitting on its hands really look like? To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson himself, Washington has to resist the temptation to make itself responsible “for teaching Arabs to elect good men.” Specifically, the Obama administration should do the following.
First, wrap up the global war on terror. The Arab capacity for self-transformation, on such evident display, has rendered it irrelevant. That means completing the drawdown of forces in Iraq and commencing the withdrawal from Afghanistan. A lower American military profile throughout the Islamic world will bring only positive results.
Second, express consistent support for the Arab citizens taking to the streets, whether they’re secular or religious in nature. And to that end, accept expressions of popular will regardless of whether the outcome fully comports with U.S. preferences. Washington’s hypocritical dismissal of Hamas’s winning elections in the West Bank and Gaza cost it credibility. The applicable principle is this: without exception, governments chosen by the people should qualify as legitimate.
Next, where democracy does produce results that comport with U.S. preferences, offer generous development assistance. After all, there will be money for it with cash saved from shutting down two unnecessary wars. As a point of emphasis, development programs should underwrite educational opportunities for young people; military aid should be a secondary and tertiary concern, when it’s considered at all. Education is one arena in which the United States can make a meaningful contribution to nation-building, training the cadre of engineers, scientists, teachers, and medical professionals who will spur real development, the lasting kind that takes years and decades to bear fruit.
Also, privately urge America’s autocratic and illiberal allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia) to recognize the imperative of reform before it’s too late. They may not listen, but it’s now clear that backing them blindly leads only to dead ends.
Lastly, Israel is sure to be discomfited by the disorder in its neighborhood. Thus, offer Jerusalem ironclad security assurances, only with a caveat: now more than ever, the creation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state qualifies as a vital U.S. national-security interest. An independent Palestine will serve as the preeminent expression of American support for Arab self-determination. It will also rob Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals of any further justification for their campaign of terror.
“History starts today,” said Richard Armitage while laying down a set of non-negotiable demands to a senior Pakistani official shortly after 9/11. He was then serving as deputy secretary of state, and his message was clear: the Americans were coming. Nothing would be the same. He and the administration he served, however, got it wrong in several respects. The Americans came but fell short on delivering on all that they promised. It seems now that the era Armitage declared, too, has passed.
Genuine change is unmistakably afoot. The people of the Arab world are presiding over the creation of another new Middle East, only this time it has the promise to be one emphatically of their own design. Given the misjudgments and miscues of the recent past, chastened Americans should acknowledge that the U.S. cannot determine what will come next. In its own interests and in the interests of those engaged in their own struggle for freedom and opportunity, the U.S. should get out of the way.
Bacevich is the author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.