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Tunisia, Egypt, Arab world need bold US support for democracy, not mixed messages

The Tunisia uprising exposed the faulty assumption of US policy in the Middle East – that stability can be bought at the cost of freedom. Even as the domestic political climate pulls Obama away from foreign involvement, US support for democracy in the Arab world is more important than ever.

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President Obama has also weighed in, but more by what he chose not to say. On Jan. 18, he phoned his Egyptian counterpart, President Hosni Mubarak. They discussed a number of issues, including Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. They did not, however, discuss the need for political reform in Egypt.

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The US has backed its rhetoric, or lack of it, with action. On Jan. 12, more than three weeks into the Tunisia uprising – and after protests had spread across the region – the State Department granted $100 million in new funding to the Jordanian government to boost employment and strengthen the health and education sectors. Presumably, this will help the Kingdom diffuse popular anger over worsening economic conditions.

These actions have a clear intent – to protect the stability of a state perceived as strategically vital to US interests.

For at least three decades, America’s relationship with the Arab world has been defined along these lines. The State Department’s institutional knowledge and contacts in the region are all oriented around the regimes in power, rather than their oppositions. (In many cases, the US has no real relationship with the latter.)

This is to say nothing of the Defense Department, military, and CIA, which enjoy extensive security ties with many of the governments in question. For example, US military assistance to Egypt – at $1.3 billion – is more than six times the amount of economic aid.

In short, America’s fundamental orientation in the Middle East is one of over-reliance on the very regimes whose stability looks increasingly compromised.

Hard to shift gears now

Considering the amount of resources invested in the Arab authoritarian order, it will be challenging for policymakers to shift gears, even if they now feel they should. What makes it more difficult is that, today, Washington lacks a strong, coherent pro-democracy constituency at home.

While Democrats have unfortunately, but understandably, distanced themselves from democracy promotion abroad, it is unclear why neoconservatives have not been more vocal in support of these new stirrings of change. Certainly the Republican agenda in Congress is now largely colored by the influence of the domestic-focused tea party, with a push to rein in spending and foreign commitments. But though they have lost clout, neoconservatives are still influential within Republican ranks.

Yet until the final days of the Tunisia uprising, they, like the Obama administration, were relatively quiet.


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