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Mitt Romney gave a foreign policy speech on Monday that could be boiled down to one argument: everything wrong with the Middle East today can be traced to a lack of leadership by President Obama. If this speech is any indication of the quality of Romney’s thinking on foreign policy, then we should worry. It was not sophisticated in describing the complex aspirations of the people of the Middle East. It was not accurate in describing what Obama has done or honest about the prior positions Romney has articulated. And it was not compelling or imaginative in terms of the strategic alternatives it offered. The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us — and them.
Ever since the onset of the Arab awakening, the U.S. has been looking for ways to connect with the Arab youths who spearheaded the revolutions; 60 percent of the Arab world is under age 25. If it were up to me, I’d put Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, in charge of American policy in the Arab-Muslim world. Because we need to phase out of the cold war business of selling arms there to keep “strongmen” on our side and in power, and we need to get into the business of sponsoring a “Race to the Top” in the Arab-Muslim world that, instead, can help empower institutions and strong people, who would voluntarily want to be on our side.
Look at the real trends in the region. In Iraq and Afghanistan, sadly, autocracy has not been replaced with democracy, but with “elective kleptocracy.” Elective kleptocracy is what you get when you replace an autocracy with an elected government before there are accountable institutions and transparency, while huge piles of money beckon — in Iraq thanks to oil exports, and in Afghanistan thanks to foreign aid.
Meanwhile, in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, we have also seen the collapse of the “Mukhabarat states” — Mukhabarat is Arabic for internal security services — but not yet the rise of effective democracies, with their own security organs governed by the rule of law. As we saw in Libya, this gap is creating openings for jihadists. As the former C.I.A. analyst Bruce Riedel put it in a recent essay in The Daily Beast, “The old police states, called mukhabarat states in Arabic, were authoritarian dictatorships that ruled their people arbitrarily and poorly. But they were good at fighting terror. … These new governments are trying to do something the Arab world has never done before — create structures where the rule of law applies and the secret police are held accountable to elected officials. That is a tall order, especially when terrorists are trying to create chaos.”
At the same time, the civil war between Sunni Muslims, led by the Saudis, and Shiite Muslims, led by Iran, is blazing as hot as ever and lies at the heart of the civil war in Syria. In addition, we also have a struggle within Sunni Islam between puritanical Salafists and more traditional Muslim Brotherhood activists. And then there is the struggle between all of these Islamist parties — who argue that “Islam is the answer” for development — and the more secular mainstream forces, who may constitute the majority in most Mideast societies but are disorganized and divided.
How does the U.S. impact a region with so many cross-cutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles. (To their credit, Romney wants to move in this direction and Obama’s Agency for International Development is already doing so.)
But when we’re talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the new government in Libya, we cannot let them come to us and say: “We need money, but right now our politics is not right for us to do certain things. Give us a pass.” We bought that line for 50 years from their dictators. It didn’t end well. We need to stick to our principles.
This is going to be a long struggle on many fronts. And it requires a big shift in thinking in the Arab-Muslim world, argues Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., from “us versus them to us versus our own problems.” And from “we are weak and poor because we were colonized” to “we were colonized because we were weak and poor.” Voices can be heard now making those points, says Haqqani, and I think we best encourage them by being very clear about what we stand for. The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when change starts with them, not us. Only then is it self-sustaining, and only then can our help truly amplify it.