The United States must further the cause of democracy in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Doing so requires realistic, pragmatic U.S. leadership to encourage reform and promote the development of civil society in the region. The Obama administration should focus on institutions and engage with all nonviolent groups, including Islamists. Effective U.S. engagement will be crucial to resolving crises from Syria and Iran to Israel and Palestine.

Marwan Muasher
Muasher is vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.
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The rising up of people demanding freedom, dignity, social justice, and government accountability across the Arab world is an astonishing and positive development. The groundswell put the Arab world back on the right course of history. But there is a long road ahead—the fitful, messy, and unpredictable process of self-government and democratic institution building is just beginning.

Taking place under banners of democracy and freedom, these Arab “revolutions” fulfilled the long-stated U.S. goal of moving the Middle East toward greater democratic and representative government. The United States cannot turn its back on this process now. Washington has a stake in the outcome of the political jockeying unleashed by the Arab Awakening and must stay engaged as the people of the Middle East struggle to take control of this moment.

U.S. policy in this new environment will be more complicated and demand more time, effort, and patience than when pro-American dictators sat in Tunis, Cairo, and Sanaa or when Baathists had a firm grip in Damascus. The relative predictability of the old order, for good or ill, is gone. Fluidity now rules the day, both for the countries in transition and for those that have not started a transition. The Obama administration’s ability to influence events will be limited by a number of factors, including reduced economic resources, domestic fatigue with military involvement, and Arab frustration with longtime U.S. support for the status quo and failures to advance the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

America still serves as an important example of a country that has struggled, and continues to struggle, with the balance between freedom, pluralism, free speech, and the rule of law.

Nevertheless, America has an important role to play. Those who doubt the relative significance of American leadership need only look at the recent cases of Libya and Syria, where the decisive factor for action or inaction has been the extent to which the United States chooses to engage. America still serves as an important example of a country that has struggled, and continues to struggle, with the balance between freedom, pluralism, free speech, and the rule of law.

The states in the midst of transition will need U.S. encouragement, understanding, tough honesty, and, where appropriate, economic assistance to build new institutions that support pluralism, foster respect for minority and individual rights and international law, marginalize the voices of extremism and sectarianism, and put their people on a path to greater prosperity. The states that have not yet moved toward reform need the United States to bluntly assess the consequences of their actions and to encourage them to embrace change.

Focus on Performance, Not Ideology

Katherine Wilkens
Wilkens was a nonresident associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment. Over the last two decades, she has held a number of senior positions in the U.S. government and nonprofit sector.

The commitment to democracy is fundamentally correct, and the United States should make it clear that it will always support the ability of the people of the Middle East to choose their own governments and hold them accountable.

The United States should stick to a disciplined policy approach that emphasizes the primacy of adherence to international standards, including respect for treaty obligations, individual and minority rights, and peaceful rotation of power. By reinforcing clear, positive objectives, Washington will both help support countries in transition that are experiencing tremors and setbacks and undermine others that are trying to advance the narrative that democracy in the Arab world is a bad idea.

The losers in the initial political competitions will, in some cases, be all too ready to raise questions about the validity of the process, or the desirability of democracy, to cover their own shortcomings and frustrations. The Obama administration cannot let the naysayers or extremists—either in the region or in the United States—hijack the narrative of the moment. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “One election does not a democracy make. That’s just the beginning of the hard work.” The United States should make it clear that it is in for the long haul.

U.S. criticism or praise should be based on performance and should be applied to newly transitioning countries as well as traditional friends, such as the region’s non-elected governments—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states.

Set Realistic Expectations

U.S. policy must be guided by realism and pragmatism as the Obama administration engages with new actors in the Middle East. Washington’s ability to influence events will be marginal in many areas. Political transition on the ground will be driven by domestic events and considerations and the competition for votes, power, and resources.

Wherever possible the United States should focus on institutions, not individuals, as this is where democratic processes will be implemented—or not. In President Barack Obama’s second term, the administration should reenergize efforts to build constructive working relationships at the institutional level and forge partnerships around practical endeavors to advance effective governance and inclusive economic development. In the area of civil-military relations this will include maintaining U.S. military support in key countries and backing measures that strengthen the professionalization and depoliticization of the security sector.

The United States should direct its resources toward efforts like shoring up the legal framework for civil society groups and helping local investors develop the tools to finance them.

U.S. engagement should also help Arab countries develop and finance their own civil society and political parties—a task Arab capital is certainly up to. While U.S. support for local nongovernmental institutions has been successful, it is important that these organizations nurture and develop deep roots in their local communities to be credible and sustainable. The United States should direct its resources toward efforts like shoring up the legal framework for civil society groups and helping local investors develop the tools to finance them.

The linkages between economic reform and political transition are critical. While limited resources will handicap what America is able to do in this area, the Obama administration should engage wherever possible to advance projects that promote small business growth, vocational education, job training, and anticorruption efforts. Washington should seek to play a leadership role in encouraging regional and international initiatives to provide large-scale economic support for the Arab world’s non-oil-exporting countries that are either going through transition or rebuilding after civil war.

Finally, the administration should be extremely cautious about imposing political conditionality on aid, trade, debt relief, and other support. Seeking to use aid as leverage often backfires, and in the fragile political atmosphere that currently prevails in these countries, such attempts are likely to provoke a strong nationalistic reaction and do more to undermine U.S. long-term goals than to advance them. Aid withheld is also in many cases quickly turned into an opportunity for another country—China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar—to jump in and provide support, often with different priorities than Washington. The United States should preserve this diplomatic tool for the most important cases, such as the abrogation, or the threatened abrogation, of international law and treaty obligations as well as major human rights issues.

Do Not Try to Pick Winners and Losers

The United States should avoid taking sides before the electorate has registered its decision at the polls. Instead, it should maintain and develop contacts with all political forces and movements, recognizing that the process of change is an issue for Arabs to decide for themselves. Electoral popularity is unpredictable, and U.S. policymakers will need to keep all lines open.

For the foreseeable future, Islamist parties will likely dominate politics in most of the countries in transition, and other parties and movements will have to work harder to gain traction in the new political environment. Initially, the political playing field in many of these countries will display a tendency to develop around familiar communal, religious, and tribal banners. Real party building will likely take decades. Along the way, the United States should be available to advise all nonviolent groups on electoral practices and the democratic process.

Moderates will inevitably be challenged by extremists in the new public domain, as has been the case in Egypt and Tunisia, but the primary U.S. goal in this area should not be to become part of the internal political narrative. Visible U.S. efforts to encourage liberal movements to organize and build stronger grassroots support are likely to only hurt those groups. The best way to support the goal of sustainable democratic change is by clearly committing to the principles and process of democracy—accepting and dealing with all legitimate winners of elections and insisting on the need for continuing the electoral process into the future.

A lack of viable countervailing political forces is the greatest threat to long-term democratic outcomes in the region. Strengthening democratic institutions, including parliaments, courts, and independent media, will be one way to mitigate this danger.

Recognize Political Islam Is Neither Monolithic Nor Static

The entry of Islamist actors into the political process in transitioning countries holds the greatest promise for the evolution and moderation of political Islam. For the most extreme Salafi groups, political participation presents a major ideological threat. For others, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, governing will require new pragmatism and difficult choices. The dynamic is likely to differ from country to country, but the United States must be ready to challenge new Islamic governments and emerging Islamist groups across the region to strengthen and institutionalize the democratic processes that brought them to power.

The United States must be ready to challenge new Islamic governments and emerging Islamist groups across the region to strengthen and institutionalize the democratic processes that brought them to power.

The Islamist parties that have won elections in the region are well on their way to becoming convinced that they need to pursue pragmatic policies in order to create the growth and generate the revenue through tourism and foreign investment that will enable them to deliver results and gain reelection. More than anything else, this need for economic pragmatism presents an opportunity for bilateral cooperation with the United States and the rest of the world.

In its dealings with Islamists the United States should also be attuned to emerging generational and ideological splits within these movements. Even among the region’s Salafis there is evidence of important divisions between groups engaged in social and political activism and those that espouse violence. The United States should avoid viewing all groups through the same lens.

It is unlikely that extremists, representing only a minority, will win at the ballot box. Their strategy will be to try to inflame public opinion and derail progress from the outside, and they will only come out on top if the democratic process breaks down.

The new Arab order has to be based on principles of political, cultural, and religious pluralism, inclusive economic growth, and peaceful rotation of power. If Islamists are going to lead the way, they will need to embrace these values. It is too early to tell if this is in the cards; but it is also too early to assume that it will not be. The United States and the international community should work together to help show the way.

Break the Regional Deadlock on Syria

After twenty months of fighting, the Syrian regime is seriously weakened and unable to be militarily decisive even in key cities like Aleppo. Nevertheless, Damascus has managed to postpone defeat, stem the tide of army defections, and successfully define the conflict as an existential struggle for survival for non-Sunnis in the Syrian state. President Bashar al-Assad has been aided in this effort by deep divisions among the opposition and the heightened regional struggle over outcomes in Syria between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar on the one hand and Iran on the other. The regionalization of the Syrian crisis, much like the Lebanese civil war before it, ensures that it will not be over without a settlement that includes all participants and their outside backers.

To date, U.S. policymakers have faced few good options. Since the start of the revolution, the risks presented by greater U.S. military engagement—greater loss of life, further militarization of the conflict, and empowerment of military elements within the opposition over civilian and nonviolent elements—have outweighed the potential benefits. However, this calculus may be beginning to shift.

The key will be the progress made in efforts to promote greater unity and inclusiveness among the internal and external Syrian opposition. As of this writing it is still too early to tell if the initial results from the November opposition meetings in Doha will succeed in significantly advancing this goal. The emergence of a representative and unified Syrian opposition body that is able to receive the confidence of Syrians suffering and dying within the country and be accountable for technical processing and delivery of outside support and assistance would be a game changer for Western policymakers. It would revive the option of providing direct military assistance and reinvigorate international diplomatic efforts to increase pressure on Assad to leave the country.

In the final analysis, any political settlement in Syria will require the support of Syria’s neighbors in order to be sustained. There are some indications that the ongoing fighting and threat of an enduring military standoff has begun to shift regional attitudes toward a political settlement. Turkey, a staunch supporter of the military overthrow of the Assad regime, wagered initially on a short revolution, along the lines of Egypt and Tunisia. The increasing threat of spillover into Turkey as the conflict has raged on has shifted Ankara’s assessment of the risks and costs of the continued conflict, and signs suggest that there may be increased interest in diplomatic action to end the fighting. In Lebanon, a continuation of the conflict represents an existential threat to the delicate political balance in Beirut. Increased sectarian violence in Iraq has also raised the stakes of the ongoing conflict for the Maliki government, and perhaps for Baghdad’s neighbors in Tehran as well.

The Obama administration should engage in aggressive diplomatic activity in support of a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict that places the state on a track for political transition and eventual elections and institution building.

The Obama administration should engage in aggressive diplomatic activity in support of a negotiated settlement to the conflict that places Syria on a track for political transition, eventual elections, and institution building. U.S. outreach to Moscow, as well as to other regional players should focus on breaking the international and regional deadlock and gaining support for a transition that will remove Assad, end the fighting on the ground, and prevent a breakup of the state. This will require a formula that takes into account the need to assure the main minorities in Syria—the Alawites, Kurds, and Christians—that they have a future in the country. Without this element, a post-Assad Syria will remain a serious destabilizing factor in the region—with growing sectarian conflict in neighboring states presenting an increased threat to regional stability.

Stay the Course on Iran

The Arab Awakening in many ways represents a strong challenge and setback for Iran. As crowds filled Tahrir Square in 2011, they presented a direct contrast to the images in Tehran of the brutal suppression of young demonstrators during the 2009 Green Movement protests. The Arab uprisings threatened to steal the narrative of “revolution” away from Tehran—a regional paradigm the Iranian mullahs have embraced for decades to justify their support of militant activities across the region. Over the last year Tehran’s image in the broader Arab world has suffered greatly due to its strong support for the Assad regime in Syria.

The Obama administration is likely to face new obstacles and decisions about when and how to support Iran’s internal opposition over the next four years. In his second term, President Obama should continue to resist political pressure to embrace democracy activists publicly because doing so would undermine the credibility of their cause at home.

The United States can best aid the cause of democracy and open society in Iran by focusing on tearing down the information and communication barriers the regime has erected.

The United States can best aid the cause of democracy and open society in Iran by focusing on tearing down the information and communication barriers the regime has erected. Technological aid and infrastructure that helps improve Iranians’ access to Internet and satellite communications would allow Iran’s democracy activists to stay better connected with one another and would show the outside world what is happening in their country. Thus far, U.S. policy has focused too heavily on sanctions and hard power and not nearly enough on media and communications.

Use Leverage With the Gulf States to Promote Regional Goals

Since the fall of the shah of Iran, U.S. objectives in the Persian Gulf have remained largely unchanged—ensuring security and stability, maintaining the free flow of oil and gas to international markets, and using American military assets to counterbalance Iran and keep the Strait of Hormuz open. These efforts serve both the United States and regional states that are concerned about Iranian influence and intentions. However, the Arab Awakening has added a new dimension to U.S. relations with the Gulf states by underscoring the high cost of friendly states’ failure to take the need for internal reform seriously. This failure represents a direct threat to long-term U.S. interests and security and stability in the Gulf.

Significant reform in the Gulf states is critical to stave off further polarization and inevitable unrest. The Obama administration cannot afford to sugarcoat this point with Gulf Arab monarchies.

Pressure to link security assistance and arms sales to specific benchmarks on reform will grow if these governments continue to pursue business as usual and fail to loosen their crackdown on civil liberties. This is particularly true in Bahrain, where a worsening stalemate on reform is radicalizing the Shia opposition, potentially increasing the very Iranian influence the government is seeking to contain. Similar challenges of political reform, civil liberties, and minority issues are evident in most of the other Gulf states.

The United States should continue to explore options for offshore basing in the Gulf that will preserve the U.S. military posture as a deterrent against Iran but limit the larger strategic liability that results from too close an association with autocratic Gulf states.

The Obama administration has failed in recent months to push the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council on two key issues that directly affect the fate of the Arab Awakening and regional stability more broadly—halting Gulf support of extremist Islamic groups across the region and increasing Gulf states’ level of investment in struggling non-oil-exporting countries in the Arab world.

The Gulf states have flirted with China and other oil consumers, but they continue to depend on U.S. protection and leadership when it comes to Iran. They need to be strongly encouraged to invest in stabilization and economic stability in the region and dissuaded from fanning the flames of regional sectarian strife and extremism, or sitting by idly while local clerics and individual citizens do the same. The sectarian paradigm of the region that some Gulf states subscribe to is in many ways a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Realize the Choice for Arab-Israeli Peace Is Now or Never

More than five years have passed without any substantive direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This situation has led to deepening paralysis and almost complete deadlock. The Palestinian Authority, which has aggressively pursued economic state-building projects and security cooperation with Israel in recent years, faces near-certain demise both politically and economically. Israel, for its part, must deal with a looming demographic time bomb of existential proportions.

The time for peace is now. Each month that goes by makes the problems more difficult to address. Time and experience have shown that the stars will never be aligned to make Israeli-Palestinian peace easy. The Obama administration needs to accept that to wait for such a moment is to intentionally defer action forever. Those who choose to subscribe to this view must do so with eyes wide open, acknowledging the consequences for Palestinian rights and aspirations as well as for the long-term existence of Israel as a democratic state.

Years of failed efforts have demonstrated that it is useless to talk about launching another “process” on the way to a settlement. Process is no longer sufficient. In the Israeli-Palestinian context it has become no more than a synonym for delay and inaction—creating new facts on the ground that make securing a two-state solution impossible.

There is no substitute for an active and engaged U.S. role in this area. The United States must commit itself to work through the Quartet to bring about a speedy settlement of the conflict before it is too late. This means engaging Arab players, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, and securing an understanding about the basic parameters of a comprehensive settlement. The goal should be to establish a timetable of months, not years, to iron out the details that in large part are already very familiar to all those involved.

Making peace in the Middle East is not cost free, but it is vital to U.S. national interests.

Making peace in the Middle East is not cost free, but it is vital to U.S. national interests. The absence of a two-state solution has serious repercussions, not just for Palestinians, but also for the long-term future of Israel and the long-term stability of the region. A settlement that guarantees Israel’s security in return for a separate and viable Palestinian state is, in many respects, a prerequisite for a stable economic and security environment in the region and key to Israel’s long-term future.

In the new Middle East, the absence of peace will resonate more intensely throughout the Arab world. The soft cushion Hosni Mubarak provided for Israeli-Egyptian relations is now gone. Without real progress, pressure to Islamize this conflict is likely to increase as new democratically elected governments led by parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood enter the regional stage. Neither side can afford to delay. The possibility of peace is slipping away.