With revolutionary change sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa and violence erupting in Libya, U.S. policy toward the region is quickly evolving. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry discussed the challenges for the United States and his policy recommendations. Carnegie's Marwan Muasher moderated.

Challenges and Opportunities

Kerry described the cascade of democratic uprisings across the Middle East as “one of the most momentous developments of our time.”  The overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has paved the way for the establishment of more transparent and accountable governments, and the United States has a crucial role to play in facilitating these democratic transitions, Kerry said. 

  • Investing in democracy: Political reforms not only serve the interests of protesters who are demanding transparent and accountable governments, but they will also preempt potential threats to U.S. national security, Kerry said. Extremism cannot flourish in open political systems where citizens enjoy economic prosperity. The United States has a strong national interest in supporting the development of emerging democracies in the Middle East through aid and other assistance programs. Although the current congressional climate may be unfavorable to foreign aid appropriations, Kerry cautioned, “We can either pay now or pay later with increased threats to our own national security.”
  • Lessons from Berlin: Kerry pointed to the breakup of the Soviet Union as a historical case study that can guide American engagement with a post-revolutionary Middle East. Just as Tunisians and Egyptians are celebrating the dismantling of repressive regimes, citizens of the former Soviet bloc countries “welcomed the destruction of stultifying autocracies” with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kerry said. Recognizing the opportunity to support nascent democracies, U.S. policy makers wisely supported an infusion of economic aid and development assistance to Eastern European countries. According to Kerry, American assistance was a pivotal factor in catalyzing successful democratic transitions in former communist states.
  • Supporting free market reforms: Kerry argued that the United States must take advantage of the opportunity to support liberal economic reforms across the Middle East. Citing the lack of economic opportunities for the region’s swelling youth population, Kerry said he is working with Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain on new legislation to fuel sustainable economic development through innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Irreversible change: Although Kerry acknowledged that emerging democracies in the Arab world face uncertain futures, he was certain that “the old order of the Middle East cannot be restored.” After years of repression and economic hardship, citizens have fundamentally overhauled the authoritarian status quo by “tearing down the walls of state-sponsored fear and bureaucratic indifference,” he asserted.
  • A blow to extremism: The uprisings of recent weeks have proved that dramatic political change is not only possible, but can be achieved peacefully. Kerry said the success of largely peaceful popular protests has undermined the legitimacy of extremist groups seeking to advance their political agendas through violence and terrorism. “The people of Egypt liberated themselves in eighteen days without a single IED or suicide bomb,” Kerry said.
  • Restoring American credibility in the region: How U.S. policy makers respond to unrest in the Middle East will shape Arab public opinion toward the United States for decades to come, Kerry said. Citing the example of Libya—where Moammar Qaddafi’s embattled regime is violently suppressing the rebel movement with “grotesque brutality”—Kerry said a failure to intervene on behalf of the Libyan people will lead regional observers to question Washington’s commitment to human rights and democratic principles.
  • Immediate action needed in Libya: With Libya on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, Kerry stressed that “the international community cannot watch from the sidelines as a quest for democracy is met with raw violence.” Kerry endorsed recommendations by the Arab League and the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace and said that U.S. and international leaders should consider “whatever is necessary” to prevent further escalation of violence.

More Changes on the Horizon

Although substantial political changes have already been achieved in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries undergoing popular uprisings, Kerry said he expects these transformations to continue for the foreseeable future. “To keep the mandate of their people and meet the challenges of modernity, leaders of the region have no choice but to embark on paths of reform,” Kerry said.

  • Libya: Although Qaddafi’s violent crackdown has momentarily dampened the momentum of the rebel movement, Kerry was confident that “the will of the Libyan people will ultimately prevail.”
  • Bahrain: The United States has important strategic interests in Bahrain, where the Navy’s Fifth Fleet has been based since 1991. Following recent clashes between state security forces and anti-government protesters, Kerry urged both sides to refrain from violence and seek a negotiated solution to the current political crisis through an inclusive national dialogue. Referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to deploy troops into Bahrain on March 14, Kerry called on the GCC countries to ensure that the intervention “does not lead to broader regional conflict.”
  • Morocco: Kerry identified Morocco as one of the countries that has responded to the imperative for immediate reform, citing King Mohammed VI’s decision to conduct a popular referendum on proposed constitutional amendments.
  • Jordan: According to Kerry, Jordanian King Abdullah II has “moved skillfully” to preempt popular unrest by promising to expand participation in the political process.
  • Oman: In Oman, Sultan Qaboos recently directed the country’s partially elected consultative council to propose constitutional amendments, in a move that signaled his commitment to broader reforms, Kerry said.
  • Israel: The cascade of reforms that is currently transforming the Middle East will have important implications for Israel’s security, Kerry said. Noting the removal of pro-Western governments in Lebanon and Egypt, Kerry predicted that countries which have historically enjoyed strong ties with Israel “may change their postures.” Referring to the stalled negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Kerry stressed that continued progress toward achieving a lasting peace is the only way to guarantee Israel’s security and the stability of the region as a whole. Highlighting the urgency of resuscitating the stalled peace process, Kerry said, “To the extent Israelis found the security situation acceptable prior to the outbreak of unrest, the status quo with its neighbors is now unsustainable.”