"Events this powerful demand a powerful response," said Sen. John Kerry at a hearing this week on America's foreign policy budget.
He's right about that. Even if the Arab awakening goes no further than North Africa (and, over the long run, it's likely to spread), the tilt toward democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya deserves unequivocal, meaningful support from democratic nations. But what kind of support, and who should take the lead?
Mr. Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he's consulting across party lines to come up with a financial aid package for Arab countries throwing off despotism. He has no numbers yet. He has in mind United States humanitarian assistance and expertise with democracy building – running elections, writing constitutions, that kind of thing. He also says the US should help breathe life into economies that can't absorb the Arab youth bulge.
Of course, the US deficit puts a damper on this idea. But it's not really the money that's the issue. Spending is a matter of prioritizing, and something this historic, and of this strategic importance, should move to the top of the priority heap. (FYI, the US spent $2.7 billion last year to further democracy worldwide; about half of that was for Afghanistan.)
More important than the money is whether Mr. Kerry and others are asking these three questions:
1. Is the US coordinating aid with other countries? Europe is closer to this region, has more economic and political ties to it, and has more at stake given the possibility of refugees hitting its shores. It also has extensive experience in helping new democracies find their footing (think Eastern Europe). And what about involving Turkey, or the G20?
2. Do the people of the Arab awakening want US help? America, as well as Europe, carry heavy historical baggage in the Arab world. Whatever is done, it has to be at the request of those affected, and with locals in the lead. The US can't be perceived as meddling, or wanting to remake a region after its own image.
3. Is financial aid the only answer? Trade and investment incentives can be a powerful tool in rebuilding economies.
The great turning over that's taking place requires a strategic response from America. But not from America alone. And only in a way that will be welcomed by those leading their countries to a new beginning.