Toward a coherent policy on Middle East unrest.
(Editor’s note: This is an updated version of the article that appears in our May 2011 issue.)
President Barack Obama’s response to the spread of unrest across the Middle East has been an unpredictable combination of neutrality (Tunisia), reluctant involvement (Egypt), and force (Libya). Even after his speech to the nation on March 28, the president has yet to formulate a policy that explains his actions.
America needs a guiding philosophy. Indeed, Washington’s approach to the Mideast uprisings should echo the Reagan Doctrine of the early 1980s, which served as a road map for America’s plan both to roll back the influence of Communism in the Third World and to exploit opportunities to expand the reach of capitalism and democracy.
Similarly, the U.S. approach should look for ways to roll back the ideology of radical Islam, while occasionally seizing opportunities to spread our values. There can be no question that we are at war with the ideology that propelled Iranian militants to attack our embassy in Tehran in 1979. A variant of that same ideology drove 19 hijackers from al Qaeda to fly planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001.
If a country supports this ideology, embraced by both Shi’ites and Sunnis in their own way, we have little to lose by backing the protest movements that seek regime change. There are two regimes that currently fit this description: Iran and Syria.
In Iran, the world may yet witness a repeat of the demonstrations that erupted in the aftermath of the rigged elections of June 12, 2009. The prospect of another four years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets. Inexplicably, President Obama did little to support the nascent Green Movement, emboldening the Iranian regime to mount a brutal crackdown. Now, after nearly two years of dormancy, Iranians have reportedly drawn courage from other protests across the region, and the country shows hints of a new revolution. Obama, for his part, must throw America’s full support behind these brave souls-with rhetoric, finances, technology, or even military assistance.
Iran, which the State Department has listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, is pursuing an illicit nuclear weapons program and simultaneously supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and even al Qaeda. It’s hard to imagine a regime worse than the one currently in power. Consequently, the United States has little to lose by supporting its downfall.
The full-blown protests that erupted in Syria in March afford Washington a similar opportunity. The United States has listed Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979. It supports Hamas and Hezbollah, and has also sent fighters into Iraq to attack U.S. forces. The regime in Damascus has long been Iran’s partner in crime around the region.
For years, the Syrian government’s brutality has deterred would-be dissenters. Amidst a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982, President Hafez al-Assad slaughtered some 20,000 people (a conservative estimate) in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city.
With the memory of Hama lingering, it came as no surprise that the Syrian people remained on the sidelines as protest after protest rocked the Middle East in January and February. But after weeks of poking and prodding the regime to test its response, demonstrators took to the streets in the southern city of Daraa on March 18. Though the regime cracked down and killed four demonstrators, thousands returned the next day. They torched buildings and tore down posters of President Bashar al-Assad.
The protests now show no signs of abating. The regime has offered cosmetic reforms, but the people have not gone home. This is an opportunity. Indeed, if Assad falls, it’s hard to imagine a regime worse than his.
While the specifics of how America can support the downfall of these regimes require additional thought, there should be little doubt that action is justified. Similarly, we should not hesitate when it comes to preventing U.S. allies from succumbing to our enemies.
A CASE IN POINT is the tiny Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain. As it has for decades, the majority Shi’ite population-accounting for about 70 percent of the kingdom’s 1,000,000 subjects-demands that the government respect its rights. Demonstrations that tentatively began with calls for greater representation have evolved into an unabashed campaign to bring down King Hamad bin Khalifa. The shift came in mid-February, after Bahraini forces fired on peaceful protesters in Manama.
Bahrainis unquestionably deserve better. However, Iran has penetrated Shi’ite society there, and could exploit the unrest. If a Shi’ite government gains power in Bahrain, even via democratic vote, it could become an Iranian proxy. This would be a loss for America. First, while it is far from a liberal democracy, Bahrain has been a valued ally. Specifically, it provides a home to our Navy’s 5th Fleet. It also serves as a geographical buffer for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional nemesis, on the Persian Gulf. Both are reasons to prevent Hamad’s overthrow.
Another friendly autocrat under duress is Jordan’s King Abdullah II. The Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, has mounted an increasingly vociferous protest movement against the regime that has forced the young monarch to make political concessions for greater representation. On the surface, this is a good thing. However, it likely means the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had strong showings at the polls in the past. The rise of the Brotherhood could bring an end to Jordan’s peace agreement with Israel, challenge existing trade agreements with the United States, and potentially herald the rise of Sharia law in a country where secularism has prevailed for decades.
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