We need a coherent Middle East policy

Who would have thought as 2011 began that Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally for nearly three decades, would be removed after massive street demonstrations and his military’s promise to honor the people’s demands for more democracy. Yet it happened and the ramifications are being felt around the world.

The Mubarak ouster, preceded by protests that led to the downfall of Tunisia’s longtime pro-Western leader, sparked anti-government demonstrations and riots in Middle East countries ranging from Libya to Yemen. Even the Islamic religious dictatorship of Iran is again coping with pro-democracy protests.

What should the United States do amid all of this turmoil?

The Wall Street Journal recently gave an excellent answer to that important question: “We suggest dusting off a copy of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address. That speech, widely derided at the time as unrealistic and overreaching if not outright utopian, had as its signature argument the line that ‘it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.’ ”

Democrat and Republican administrations have distinguished between enemy dictatorships and pro-U.S. ones that our nation needs to protect our strategic and economic interests. To friendly authoritarians, President Bush advised: “To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice and America will walk at your side.”

President Barack Obama, reacting to recent events, displayed an incoherent and unbaked policy. After a few days of demonstrations the president called for Mubarak’s “immediate” removal, leaving longtime U.S. allies in the Middle East concerned at how a reliable friend could be thrown under the bus so quickly. Our Saudi Arabian ally actually issued a rare public rebuke to Washington. There are some things you say publicly, but some things are better said privately. Let’s hope the president is learning that.

After his swearing in, President Obama engaged in pandering to anti-U.S. despots in Syria and Iran. That was a wasted effort. Then he was silent during the massive Iranian street protests that were met with violent repression in June 2009 after fraudulent elections were held. He said he didn’t want to “meddle” in Iran’s domestic affairs. So, if the Obama administration didn’t want to “meddle” when it came to an anti-American Iranian dictator, what is the world to think of his “meddling” in the case of a pro-Western authoritarian? Furthermore, after calling for Mubarak’s removal, why didn’t the president publicly rebuke Egypt’s extremist Muslim Brotherhood, which is now included in the transitional organizing for a new government?

What happens in Egypt is a pivotal moment for America and the entire Mideast. The fact that demonstrations by young Arabs can force a peaceful change (aided by the military, in Egypt’s case) is a healthy model that counters the radical Islamic message that violence is needed to oust the region’s pro-American regimes. But one indicator of how Egypt proceeds on a democratic path is whether the constitutional stipulation remains that political parties are banned from using religion as a basis for their politics.

It will also be instructive to see guarantees of freedom of religion as well as women’s right to vote, their ability to own property and to get a divorce. Will radical Shariah law be winked at in some areas, which allows everything from “honor” killings to male and female segregation in public?

President Obama got it right when he said that Egypt’s essentially nonviolent revolution “inspired us” with “a moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice.”

Now the administration needs to keep bending that arc of history toward justice through its relationship with Iran. More vigorous support of the call from Iran’s opposition movement for an end to theocratic oppression would be a good start. More trade deals with friendly Arab nations would also help. More enlightened economic policies in these countries can perhaps foster more enlightened political policies.

Events continue to move quickly in the Middle East, so the time for incoherence in our foreign policy must end. Let’s hope the president realizes that as the leader of the free world, we have an obligation to press for more freedom and human rights, but all in conjunction with advancing our strategic interests in the continuing war against Islamic extremism.

J.C. Watts (JCWatts01@jcwatts.com) is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group. He is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.

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