Last night’s State of the Union address was, unsurprisingly, focused on domestic issues. For someone concentrating on the broader Middle East, the speech’s oblique references to foreign policy did not convey a clear sense of the social unrest and political malaise that have been on display for weeks as demonstrations and acts of self-immolation spread across the region. The only reference to these developments was the President’s brief reflections of the stunning developments in Tunisia:
“And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Absent from this remark was any mention of the unprecedented and ongoing demonstrations on the streets of cities throughout Egypt, a key ally in the region and a recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. assistance. In light of decades-long U.S. ties with and support for the autocratic Arab order, the United States is not in a position to radically revise policy in the space of a paragraph or two. U.S. support for Egypt and the Mubarak regime has been deep and consistent since the signing of the Camp David peace accords under Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat. And while the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause might lead to a visceral sympathy for them, in many ways avoiding direct reference might be preferable to a short and transparently disingenuous statement.
For purely instrumentalist reasons, our relationship to political reform and democratization in the Arab world has been inconsistent. Short-term interests and considerations of stability have often taken precedence over long-held ideals about political participation and democratic norms. For the United States, the freedom to think proactively about democratic change in the post-Cold War Middle East continues to be inhibited by the events of 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran. Hence we have responded differently to portents of democratization depending on possible outcomes and geopolitical advantage. The post-election protest movement following the 2009 Iranian elections was greeted with genuine, if muted, excitement on the part of the United States. Other instances, such as Hamas’s successful foray in electoral politics in 2006 hastened policy retrenchment. The United States likes democracy when the right people win.
It is only natural that we would be more eager for like-minded leaders to emerge from periods of political transition. Again, while understandable in the short term, our perennial hesitation has become problematic over the course of decades. The Arab world and its leaders have proven wholly immune to the very notions of gradualism and internally-directed liberalization and there have been precious few political transitions to speak of. This has had quite obvious negative ramifications for U.S. interests in the region and beyond. While the United States cannot force political openings, our policies have clearly hindered their emergence.
However, the social unrest now emerging throughout the region and testing key assumptions of U.S. policy are fuelled by local discontent and popular organizing that has little to do with our State of the Union, as opposed to the frayed and tattered state of unions throughout the Arab world. In light of the disastrous state of affairs in the Arab world wrought by years of conflict, mismanagement, and repression, it is incumbent to think realistically about how we can support the democratic aspirations of Tunisians, Egyptians, and others. This cannot simply be a rhetorical exercise, and words alone will not shift political realities on the ground. And we must bear in mind that the prospect of political reform in the region is fraught with serious dangers. But while the Egyptian situation might not result in immediate effect, we should be on notice that our inability to encourage much-needed political reform by our allies might in the end endanger the very stability we prize.