Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Practice What You Preach

I attended a fantastic panel discussion last night at the Council on Foreign Relations. The topic was "After the Arab Spring: Syria and Beyond", with guest speakers Shadi Hamid (Brookings Doha Center) and Robert Malley (International Crisis Group). I tended to agree with Robert Malley on most points, so I am going to focus here on Shadi Hamid.

The overarching theme that I saw that encompassed the night's discussion was: what is the proper role of the United States in the Middle East at this time? Should Washington let events in the region play themselves out, with minimal intervention, or should the US be more assertive in demonstrating its hopes and values?

Hamid advocates a more assertive US role in the region. He argued that since the US has essentially been on the wrong side of history in the region for the past 50 years, supporting autocrats and favoring stability over democratic processes, Washington should now actively support the Arab people by pressuring emerging democratic-leaning governments with the leverage (basically, money and guns) that we have in the region; something the Obama administration has failed to do, argued Hamid.

Initially, I disagreed with Dr. Hamid. Where do we draw the line between demonstrating our atonement on the one hand, and outright (and unwanted) interventionism on the other?

During the talk, I was daydreaming about a speech, preferably by an American official, titled "What the Americans Learned From the Arabs". In my daydream-speech, the official would say something like, "It is true, the Arab Spring caught most of us by surprise. We weren't expecting it. We were comfortable in the enforced and artificial stability of autocratic regimes. But then, we woke up. The Arab people threw off their chains and asserted their natural human right for freedom and dignity, proving that the US had it wrong. We've had it wrong for 30 years. But the Arabs have given us the opportunity to reassess our values, and align the values that we project with the values that we practice in our foreign policy. And we have the Arabs to thank for that. Shukran. We won't make the same mistake again."

My daydream is more in the realm of introspective public atonement, rather than assertive extroverted intervention. However, and this is where I started to sway in Hamid's direction, I realized that actions indeed speak louder than words. My daydream, idealist and semi-eloquent that it is, would have been a double double-standard, because there is no chance that the US would suddenly change course and start supporting the Shiite majority in Bahrain, for example. It just won't happen. A daydream speech like mine would be distasteful at best, insulting and manipulative at worst. Like it or not, the US is not in the position to project an ironclad set of values and insist on the same values in others. That's the reality.

However, I think that Hamid's message was lost in the context of the talk, for the audience and me, as he also spent time during the conversation justifying military intervention in Syria in addition to speaking about American assertiveness in the region in general. Separating the two was difficult, especially while I was getting worked up over how much I disagree with outright military intervention in Syria (at least for now). But, looking back, I see his point about an assertive American voice in favor of democracy in the region. There is a difference between outright intervention and applying political pressure. The subtlety is in the details -- something that time didn't permit Dr. Hamid to expand upon.

That being said, it is a slippery slope. Actively pressuring the emerging governments can quickly lead to backlash. If the US pushes too far, we can expect increasing anti-American rhetoric from those governments, and a possible outright rejection of a working relationship. With anti-Americanism being popular in the Arab street (refer to my previous post here), those governments now have leverage against American interventionism. Take the recent house-arrest of NGO workers in Egypt for example. It demonstrated that the Egyptian government has power, and Washington has to now realize that its opinion is not the Alpha and Omega.

I think that Washington needs to be careful not to frame the relationship between the US and other countries as hierarchical -- meaning, the Poppa Bear US giving advice and making demands on other Baby Bear governments. Given the fragility of emerging democracies (and basic respect), the US needs to know when to push, how hard to push, and when not to push at all. Balancing that delicate relationship while respecting the self-determination and values of the countries in question will be a key feature to future US-Arab relations -- and the first step in atonement for past mistakes.

In the end, I agree with Dr. Hamid that the US must not turn its back on the Arab people. It must advocate and actively pressure governments to embrace democratic change. In essence, it will be practicing what it preaches. And we have the Arabs to thank for that.

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