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How should the U.S. respond to the protests in the Middle East?

Protesters standing on top of army vehicles in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday.
Protesters standing on top of army vehicles in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday. (Peter Macdiarmid)

Some say that a freedom agenda only opens the door to Islamists; the truth is that our support for secular dictators does more for Islamists than democracy promotion ever did. We have an opportunity to right our ways and stand with the people of the Middle East - not forgetting Iran - in their quest for basic freedom. But it's going to take more than bland statements and White House hand-wringing. The president himself needs to stand up and unequivocally make clear America's position: in favor of the people over their oppressors. Suspend aid to the Egyptian government. Initiate an immediate review of all programs in the Middle East. Get the word out to our diplomats. Now.

HUSSEIN AGHA and ROBERT MALLEY

Agha is senior associate member of St. Antony's College, Oxford University; Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and was special assistant to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001

Decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East are coming back to haunt Washington. The United States backed Arab regimes that supported U.S. objectives irrespective of whether they legitimately represented popular aspirations. It propped up "moderate" rulers whose moderation consisted almost exclusively of cooperating with American policies. The more they aligned themselves with Washington, the more generous America's support and the greater the erosion of their domestic credibility. As a result, the United States now faces a battle it cannot win.

To continue supporting unpopular rulers would further alienate those who are most likely to assume power in the future. Openly siding with the street would strain ties with regimes that might survive the unrest and whose help the United States still needs; signal to America's remaining friends that its support is fickle; precipitate the rise of forces hostile to U.S. interests; and do little to sway demonstrators who will see in America's midnight conversion hypocrisy and opportunism.

Washington can cut its losses and begin turning the page in its relations with the Arab world. That will have to wait. For now, it means assuming a low profile and resisting the temptation to become part of the story. That hardly is an exciting agenda, but the United States could do far worse than do very little.

MARINA OTTAWAY

Director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Washington's reaction to the growing unrest will have almost no impact on what happens in the Arab world, which will be determined by domestic factors - the protesters' determination, the governments' response, the willingness of police and army units to use force against demonstrators. Protesters, who view the United States as the historical prop for Arab authoritarian regimes, will not heed Washington's calls to avoid violence. And regimes that have been authoritarian for decades will not suddenly see the wisdom of liberalization because of statements from Washington.

But what the United States says affects its standing in the region. The Obama administration's attempt to strike a balance between not offending incumbent regimes and refurbishing its image by sending a message that Washington wants reforms is failing - messages are circulating on the Internet to the effect that the United States is once again supporting authoritarianism. Washington must get off the fence and choose whether it wants to support democracy, and thus be on the side of Arab publics enraged by decades of repression, or whether it wants to continue supporting regimes that have been repressive for decades in the name of ill-defined strategic interests. It cannot do both. The United States' long-term interests would be best served by supporting unequivocally the messy process of democratic change.


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