The revolutionary wave of protests across the Arab world present an unprecedented opportunity for the U.S. to redefine its relationship with Middle Eastern and North African countries and take significant steps towards winning the war on terror. The U.S. must champion the spread of democracy across the region and help create economic prosperity by forging trading partnerships with those countries.
For decades, the U.S. has supported authoritarian regimes in the Middle East for a variety of reasons, including keeping the price of oil low for American consumers. As a result, public opinion regarding the U.S. has been extremely low, making it difficult to implement the cultural and societal changes necessary to win the war on terror.
Unlike conventional warfare, the war on terror cannot be won using military might alone, because terrorist groups transcend geographic and political boundaries. This fact ispainfully evident in Afghanistan, where American troops have remained for more than 10 years in order to identify and eliminate terrorist groups in the region.
The protests that began earlier this year are unique for several reasons. They were organized by networks of young people as grassroots events, without the help of any external organization or political group. They were also organized against their own governments with the goal of toppling corrupt and authoritarian political systems that have been in place for years.
Mass protests in the Middle East are not a new or unique occurrence, and they are almost always directed towards the U.S. and the West. This time, the process was carried out almost without any reference or vilification of the U.S. Finally, the protests in the region have never occurred on such a large scale. At current count, protests have occurred in every Middle Eastern and African country with the exception of the UAE and Kuwait.
Until now, the U.S. has pursued neither a clear nor consistent foreign policy strategy. During the Egyptian revolution, the White House dawdled to show support for protestors until it was absolutely clear that the government would be toppled. In contrast, the U.S. has committed military resources to neutralizing the “excessive” use of force by Col. Gaddafi’s military, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the brutal murder of civilians by the Syrian government. This approach will not serve America’s national interest and will further damage its reputation in the region.
The U.S. must refrain from participating in any military activity in the region. Doing so will be extremely expensive and threatens to involve the military in a prolonged campaign. By agreeing to send war planes to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, the President has committed the U.S. to the removal of Col. Gaddafi from power. If Gaddafi does not step down, the U.S. will have further emboldened his stature and reputation in the region as a strong leader. Instead, the U.S. must work with regional partners to create a truly international coalition of partners working to stabilize the region. While the recent attack on Libya was carried out under the NATO flag, the U.S. bore the brunt of the effort and the loss of an American military jet on Libyan soil firmly branded the intervention as being American. The NATO coalition should have been led by European partners such as the United Kingdom or Germany.
The U.S. must instead support the spread of democracy in the region by publically championing American values such as capitalism, free speech and equality of justice. Regardless of whether or not these revolts are successful, it is clear that over time these regimes will collapse and democratic systems must be put in place. By choosing to remain silent, as it did during the Egyptian revolts, the U.S. will seem hypocritical and uncommitted to its core values.
In countries where the revolts have led to significant upheaval, such as Egypt and Tunisia, the U.S. must work to establish economic partnerships that go beyond the trade of oil and expand further to include infrastructure projects and other commodities. Approximately 65 percent of the Middle Eastern population is under the age of 35, and the rate of unemployment in that region far exceeds that of the U.S. This in turn leads to chaos and dissatisfaction with the status quo, and encourages young people to join extremist groups.
By encouraging the spread of democracy and creating partnerships to spur economic growth, the U.S. can develop a clean moral conscience while also reducing the threat of extremism to American national security.