America and Arab political reform

A couple weeks ago I commented on the Egyptian parliamentary elections and the effect that political stagnation in Egypt has on the United States.  In a related story, The Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of State Clinton is embarking on a Mid-East tour of Arab states allied with the US, with the goal of promoting political reform:

"Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will press key Arab states this week to further open up their political systems, according to U.S. officials, amid what analysts say are growing signs that democratic reforms in parts of the strategic Middle East have stagnated. 

The Obama administration has been criticized by democracy activists over the past two years for not pushing Arab leaders from Cairo to Amman to more aggressively pursue political openness. But the chief American diplomat’s mission will be complicated, say Mideast analysts, by recent political and social turmoil engulfing some of Washington’s closest strategic partners in the region, including Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria." 

WSJ’s foreign affairs correspondent and deputy editorial page editor, Bret Stephens, comments on how Egyptian politicians, public figures, and government controlled media are attempting to deflect criticism by casting events such as shark attacks, sectarian violence, and even al-Qaeda as Zionist plots.  This phenomenon is not new and not specific to Egypt.  While such conspiracy theories are humorous in their overreach, they also underscore a desperate inability of Arab states to accept accountability and deal with festering social, political, and economic issues head on.


The dangers of political stagnation in Arab countries reaches beyond their borders and directly affects US interests and security. As for Egypt, notes Stephens:


For the West, it means an Egypt that resembles nothing so much as Iran in the waning days of the Shah, in which a comparatively moderate regime led by a sickly despot confronts a restive and radical public. 

The last thing the United States needs right now is an Iran-style Islamist revolution. While there is no immediate danger of that happening in Egypt or other regional states aligned with the US (with the possible exception of Tunisia), the region is not exactly stable. Continued stagnation in Arab states is forcing their public to seek alternative forms of government. More often than not, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the alternative is more dangerous than the status quo. Since protests and rigged elections are ineffective in effecting change, extremism and revolution become a tempting “solution.”


This predicament leaves the US trying to balance good relations with our Arab allies while pressuring them to make tough but necessary internal reforms.


Democracy promotion in the Middle East was a cornerstone of the second Bush administration post 9/11.  But support for this policy waned as America faced increasing complications in Iraq.  In his outreach to the Muslim world, President Obama has also muted support for political reforms which peeve Arab governments.  Secretary Clinton’s trip may signal a more engaged approach.   And yet, one trip is unlikely to yield any but cosmetic reforms.  What will be required is a deliberate, sustained effort on the part of the United States to make political reform in the Arab world a top priority.  Given how much such pestering aggravates the Arab governments whose support in the region we continue to seek, it remains to be seen whether the current US administration will sustain this effort or pitch it in favor of government-to-government cooperation on other regional issues.