President Obama is under pressure to relaunch the political reform agenda in the Middle East, but low U.S. credibility and the region’s political stagnation leave little hope that typical methods will be successful. The last time a U.S. administration faced a similar situation with such unfavorable circumstances for advancing political reform was over 30 years ago during the height of the Cold War.

To have a chance at impacting political reform in the Middle East under the present circumstances, the Obama administration should open a dialogue with governments in the region, modeled on the Helsinki process that was used to improve relations with the Soviet bloc. The United States must be willing to discuss the universal principles that should underlie its own Middle East policy if they want to engage Arab countries in a discussion of the principles they should respect.

If the Obama administration wants to embark on a new policy of promoting political reform, it must understand certain realities:

  • Incumbent regimes are more firmly entrenched than ever.
     
  • Increasingly low election turnout signals rising disenchantment with political processes and organizations.
     
  • Arab states are unable to govern effectively. Rather than tackling the serious underlying problems, they choose patronage and populist gestures to win support.
     
  • The fallback solution of democracy promotion, supporting civil society and political parties, will have little impact in countries that have systemically limited the political space for these groups.
     
  • The United States cannot threaten to withhold aid to encourage reform, as it depends on the oil of many Arab countries.
     
  • In the early months of his administration, President Obama could ignore the issue of political reform. But the Arab press is now openly questioning his commitment to a new U.S. policy in the region.

“There is, of course, a much easier way for the Obama administration to show that the United States still cares about political reform in the Middle East, one that would not require the United States to adjust its own policies,” writes Ottaway. “It could go back to exhorting Arab governments to change; it could launch new initiatives on women’s rights or education; it could even become more daring and enter into a dialogue with Islamist parties. Given the conditions that exist in the Arab world now, such steps would make little difference and do nothing to restore the United States’ much-eroded credibility on the subject of democracy and political reform.”