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 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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.