The Arab uprisings will require a fundamental reorientation of America’s approach to the region. A good place to begin is to accept that Arabs are not stupid. They have long experience in decoding the propaganda of their own regimes and have a well-earned skepticism of virtually anything that the United States proposes. They understand America’s place in the region, better than most Americans do, and have no patience with the pleasantries of American political discourse. Americans may believe that they can keep the same regional policies while winning over Arab publics. Arabs do not. They have a hypersensitivity to double standards, particularly on the Palestinian issue. Why do all peoples have the right to democracy except Palestinians, they ask, and why is there a responsibility to protect Libyans but not Gazans?
America also needs to take seriously the deep and fundamental linkages between issues. Many have advised American policy makers that there is no real relationship between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wider strategic issues in the region. This is nonsense. The unification of Arab political space and the crystallization of a new Arab collective narrative has ratcheted up the already real interconnections among issues in the region. The impact of one country’s struggles on another’s politics will grow. Core Arab issues like Palestine will be impossible to avoid – but so will urgent new crises such as Syria’s uprising. A case by case approach will not be enough.
More open and turbulent (if not necessarily democratic) politics will lead Arab publics to focus on distinct national concerns. But it would be wrong to assume that this will reduce the attention to broader regional issues. The uprisings in the Arab world rejected a status quo that America helped to maintain, and targeted leaders upon which America long relied. The Arab uprisings have imprinted on a rising generation the deep shared identity and narrative that had perhaps faded from the minds of their elders in the face of the dismal reality of Arab regime hypocrisy and competition.
Israel, for its part, is right to worry about the Arab uprisings. Its policies over the last decade, from the endless neglect of the peace process to its wars against Lebanon and Gaza, have left it more isolated than ever in the region, and its leaders have long since abandoned even the effort to engage Arab publics. The dictators with which it cultivated strong relations over the last decade are on the run, while the publics it alienated are ascendant. With little prospect of serious movement on the peace process any time soon, and hostile publics on the rise, Israel is likely to face ever greater regional isolation and less willing cooperation from regimes.
All of this means that a serious rethinking of America’s relationship with Israel cannot be avoided. American support for Israel is bipartisan, deeply held, and unlikely to change any time soon. The United States should support Israel and help it as a real friend. America’s ties to Israel are deep, at the societal level as well as at the military and intelligence levels, and for all the turbulence in the relationship friends should not be abandoned lightly.
But the relationship will have to change if the U.S. hopes to navigate the new Arab public. Put bluntly, it has never been more important to America that Israel solve its Palestine problem, but it has never been less likely that Israel will be able or willing to do so. The old dodges and workarounds simply will not work anymore. Decades of American policy have been based on the ability to manage the tension between its alliance with Israel and its alliance with the Arabs through the pretense of a never-ending peace process and a reliance on dictators to crush public opposition. With dictators gone or under pressure, and the peace process dead, such a strategy cannot be sustained.
Finally, the U.S. will need to accept the limits of its ability to control the Middle East. Washington has long been accustomed to the habits of empire. The rise of the empowered Arab public marks the end of those days when autocratic allies could enforce an unpopular regional order. The powers that drive Arab politics in the coming years will be those like Turkey and Qatar that maintain good relations with America even while pursuing popular and independent foreign policies. America’s struggling economy and war-weary population put clear limits on its ability to engage again in foolish, expensive wars of choice. It is better for an independent Iraq to find its own path than for the U.S. to vainly continue to police its streets while its politicians ignore our advice, better for America to work through international coalitions to help Libyans and Syrians.
The days of browbeating allies to be with us or against have passed. Dealing with more democratic regimes, which must respond to a public opinion, will be complicated. But we have long experience of dealing with this in other parts of the world, and have managed to maintain excellent relations with an independent-minded Turkey. A liberal foreign policy should aspire to partner with such strong, democratic friends. Look at Egypt: Mubarak may have been compliant, but his decrepit regime and unpopular foreign policy rendered Egypt a bit player in regional politics. We can do better.
This is not a counsel of despair or decline. It is a counsel of hope. It is a vision of an America that takes seriously its own ideals and values, even as it protects its vital national interests. This pragmatic liberalism could, as President Obama hopes, finally place America on the right side of history. The Arab uprisings have only begun. The world they are making will not be as familiar, comfortable, or predictable as the world we have come to know. But we cannot stop it. We should not want to stop it. We should embrace a region moving at last toward what its people always knew it could be. That is America’s challenge.