Joe Klein: How the U.S. Should Support Middle East Reform

What the U.S. can do to encourage democratization in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East

  • Photo-Illustration by Stephen Kroninger for TIME; Desert: Brooke Whatnall — National Geographic / Getty Images

    The battle lines were clear as Egypt's revolution devolved into trench warfare in its third week. Two new leaders had emerged. On the government side, there was Vice President Omar Suleiman, who seemed intent on slow-walking the pro-democracy protesters into oblivion. Egypt's "culture," he said, was not ready for democracy. And on the protesters' side, there was Wael Ghonim, the passionate Google executive — how perfect! — who tweeted as he was released from prison: "Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it."

    The U.S. stood somewhere between these two sides, which actually was not a bad place to be. There was a coherent middle path — a gradual transition to democracy — and the Obama Administration was trying hard to sell it. The plan involved compromises by both sides. The government would have to lift the 30-year state of emergency, which Suleiman seemed loath to do. And the protesters would have to accept that President Hosni Mubarak would not be humiliated by public defenestration, that he would remain a figurehead in a government led, in effect, by Suleiman until the next elections. It would take time to organize those elections; they would certainly occur no sooner than September.

    There was general agreement in the region, and within the U.S. government, that this was a reasonable plan. There was no pretense, outside Egypt, that Mubarak could survive. "That era is over," a Middle Eastern diplomat said. Indeed, it was not just the Mubarak kleptocracy that was ending, but an era in American diplomacy. "We have to recognize that there is a strong, fresh wind blowing, powered by these new information technologies," Senator John Kerry told me. "It will be increasingly difficult for dictators to impose their will through sheer brutality."

    But how could the U.S. change its decidedly awful image in the region? For 60 years we had supported any autocrat willing to take our side against the Soviet Union, and we stuck with them after the Soviets disappeared. And we had backed Israel unequivocally against the claims of the Palestinians. Both were intensely unpopular positions on the so-called Arab street. Neither could be modified easily. But the Administration's efforts in Egypt — clumsy and tentative as they sometimes were — pointed the way forward: our allies in the region would have to be nudged toward democratization. No longer could the autocrats' trump card — the fear of an Islamist takeover — be dispositive.

    Of course, our leverage is not exactly overwhelming. Dictating to dictators doesn't work; they are congenitally delusional about their own indispensability. "The best way to do this is through incentives, not threats," says Kenneth Pollack, whose book A Path Out of the Desert is an essential road map for the reform of basic Middle Eastern institutions — crony-ridden economies; schools that emphasize rote learning; the absence of rational justice systems. "We should offer financial support to programs in education and economic development that move the system in the right direction." Pollack cites Saudi Arabia, which doesn't need our financial support: King Abdullah has overhauled the educational system, shifting the curriculum from religious dogmatism toward intellectual freedom. "It doesn't make headlines like Tahrir Square," Pollack adds. "But it is precisely the sort of thing we should be encouraging."

    The U.S. should also support democracy demonstration projects under way in Iraq and the West Bank, which we need to bolster any way we can. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has supervised major advances in security and economic freedom that are threatened by the Israeli settler movement. "Fayyad's impressive," said Kerry, who saw him challenge other Arab leaders on the need for democracy in a private meeting recently. "He did it with a boldness that I've not seen before in the Arab world."

    Which raises the question of our unflinching support for Israel. This is not an issue in Tahrir Square. But it soon will be when the U.N. Security Council votes on a resolution to condemn Israel for its West Bank settlements, illegal under international law. The U.S. won't support the resolution. It probably won't even abstain, although a major argument in favor of doing just that is taking place within the Administration. But we should be clear about this: Israel's illegal behavior in the occupied territories stands at odds with the values the U.S. is trying to promote in the region.

    Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren speaks about the "strategic alliance" between the U.S. and Israel. But support for Israel is more a strategic liability than a strength. The moral alliance between the U.S. and Israel is far more significant. It is an alliance undertaken, despite the disadvantages to the U.S., to support a democracy and redress a historic wrong. This is an argument that can be made, profitably, to the young people in Tahrir Square — but only if Israel respects the territory and democratic rights of the Palestinians.