Opinion

Look to the cold war to chill fresh calls for American isolationism

Several Democrats and Republicans are calling for a fresh -- and dangerous -- isolationism. But just as Europe needed US leadership after the cold war, so does the Arab world now.

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The debate about America’s world role recently has taken a disturbing direction. Prominent figures in both parties – including a number of the announced Republican presidential hopefuls – have anchored their rhetoric on demands for American withdrawal from various conflict zones and from international engagement generally.

Voices on the political margins – Dennis Kucinich on the left and Rand Paul on the right – are increasingly echoed by figures from the mainstream. Even President Obama has succumbed to the prevailing mood with his unfortunate June reference to “nation building here at home.”

To be sure, Americans’ unease with global involvement is understandable at a time of high joblessness and economic uncertainty. Americans are unlikely to support the country’s international goals unless they are convinced that achieving these objectives will enhance the national interest.

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The isolationism that is gaining momentum is especially pernicious given the prospects for political change in the greater Middle East. If there is an issue where vigorous American leadership and American interests are organically related, it is the contemporary struggle for democracy in the Arab world.

Benefits from European revolutions

Here it is worth recalling just how much the United States benefited from the revolutions of 1989-91 that swept the Soviet empire.

For 40 years, a huge swath of Europe had been ruled by forces that imposed totalitarian rule at home and formed an alliance of implacably anti-American countries.

The Soviet bloc experienced uprisings or other challenges to Soviet hegemony in at least four countries – East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland – that posed threats to global peace. On more than one occasion, incidents involving the US and the Soviet Union threatened to escalate into armed conflict between nuclear superpowers. Political reform in the developing world was thwarted by governments influenced by Marxist ideas or juntas that invoked the communist menace to stifle change.

The events of 1989 have led to democratic rule in Central Europe, the Baltics, and the Balkans. Most of the states in the region are members of the European Union or aspire to EU membership. The region is no longer a flash point of global conflict; these are normal countries that suffer the problems that normal countries suffer.

True, developments in Russia have been disappointing. But Russia today does not pose a major military threat to Europe or the US, notwithstanding its serious aggression against Georgia in 2008.

The transformation of Eastern Europe from totalitarianism to democracy was achieved with intense involvement of the Western democracies under American leadership. And while the US suffered deep political divisions over various cold-war initiatives, there was strong bipartisan support for the measures required to build a united and democratic Europe in the post-Soviet era. By any measure, the US role in this political transformation was well worth the cost.

America now finds itself at a similar historic moment. The greater Middle East is the one region that was bypassed by the wave of democracy that engulfed the world two decades ago. It has produced cruel dictators who murdered their own citizens, waged war on neighbors, undermined regional reform, and abetted terrorism.

The countries of the Middle East and North Africa rank at the bottom on just about every democracy indicator, from press freedom to rule of law to minority rights to gender equality. The cost to the US – morally, diplomatically, financially, and in lives lost – has been huge.

The upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere say – indeed, scream – that Arabs want the same freedoms that others enjoy. But where the transition to democracy went relatively smoothly in Eastern Europe, obstacles to change in the Middle East region are formidable. To economic decline and alarming levels of youth unemployment can be added hostile neighbors and cynical elites driven by rule-or-ruin philosophies. And unlike those liberated from communism, the Arab lands do not have an entity like the EU to facilitate their political transition.

One notable fact about the Arab Spring is the absence of anti-Americanism among the protesters. Indeed, the most frequent complaints focus on our timidity in expressing solidarity with democratic forces.

Arabs to Americans: Help wanted

While the Arab revolution is home grown, many of its principal figures have made clear that American involvement is essential to consolidating gains and ensuring that progress is not rolled back. Those who are trying to build a democratic culture in Egypt or break free from dictatorship in Syria will not find inspiration in a debate dominated by those who argue that America should “come home.”

If the US is to help propel the Arab revolution forward, both the Obama administration and the Republican leadership must make clear that they understand the high stakes involved and are willing to work in unity to support democratic forces in the region.

For the Republicans, this means, among other things, putting aside the incessant sniping at the (extremely modest) foreign assistance budget.

For the president, it would mean breaking with his pattern of halfhearted involvement in international issues and making clear to the world that change in the Middle East is a critical priority (a message he began with an important speech on May 19).

On the level of policy, the US could start by reminding those who are trying to build new societies that, in previous democratic revolutions, pervasive corruption and a weak rule of law have played an especially insidious part in eroding popular faith in free institutions.

America has contributed to the march of freedom when it combined a faith in its democratic ideals with resolve and patience. Those qualities are especially called for as the US confronts the demand for liberty in a region where repression has too long held sway. For if the Arab Spring should fail and autocracy reemerge triumphant, America will certainly count itself among the losers.

David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House, a nonprofit democracy watchdog organization, and Arch Puddington is the director of research.

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