The choice between stability and democracy has been a constant tension in U.S. foreign policy, and in few places has it been more pronounced than in the Middle East.
Many of the fallen or imperiled autocrats in the region were supported by successive U.S. governments, either as Cold War foils to the Soviet Union or as bulwarks against Islamist extremism before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In his June 2009 address at Cairo University, Obama acknowledged the controversy that the Bush administration’s democracy promotion stirred in the region.
“That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people,” he said, adding that “each nation gives life to the principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.”
In the Arab Middle East, those traditions include Islam, although Obama did not directly address the religion’s role in democratic politics. He said the United States “will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
The goal of Islamist movements after taking power is at the root of concern expressed by Republican lawmakers and others in Washington.
Paul Pillar, a longtime CIA analyst who now teaches at Georgetown University, said, “Most of the people in the intelligence community would see things on this topic very similarly to the president — that is, political Islam as a very diverse series of ideologies, all of which use a similar vocabulary, but all quite different.”
“The main challenge President Obama will face is a political challenge from across the aisle, and one reinforced by Israel,” said Pillar, whose portfolio included the Middle East.
As the Arab revolutions unfold, the White House is studying various Islamist movements, identifying ideological differences for clues to how they might govern in the short and long term.
The White House’s internal assessment, dated Feb. 16, looked at the Muslim Brotherhood’s and al-Qaeda’s views on global jihad, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States, Islam in politics, democracy and nationalism, among others.
The report draws sharp distinctions between the ambitions of the two groups, suggesting that the Brotherhood’s mix of Islam and nationalism make it a far different organization than al-Qaeda, which sees national boundaries as obstacles to restoring the Islamic caliphate.
The study also concludes that the Brotherhood criticizes the United States largely for what it perceives as America’s hypocritical stance toward democracy — promoting it rhetorically but supporting leaders such as Mubarak.
“If our policy can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, we won’t be able to adapt to this change,” the senior administration official said. “We’re also not going to allow ourselves to be driven by fear.”
After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the United States and Israel led an international boycott of the government. But Obama administration officials, reviewing that history with an eye toward the current revolutions, say the reason for the U.S. boycott was not Hamas’s Islamic character but its refusal to agree to conditions such as recognizing Israel.
In a speech Monday in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to draw on that lesson, implicitly inviting Islamist parties to participate in the region’s future elections with conditions. “Political participation,” Clinton said, “must be open to all people across the spectrum who reject violence, uphold equality and agree to play by the rules of democracy.”