It is always difficult in government - especially in crisis - to distinguish the urgent from the important, to put the immediate challenge in the context of a broader opportunity. But that is the job of the president and his administration, of Congress and ultimately, of the American people who elect them.
That is why our approach to the Libyan crisis has been so frustrating. It is all reactive and tactical, rather than proactive and strategic. Over the course of his two-plus years in office, President Obama has been faced with uprisings in Iran, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen - not to mention ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The response to each of these situations has come up short.
The problem is less a matter of the administration’s policies toward Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, but that each policy seems to be isolated, detached from one another, as if they have nothing in common. This ad hoc approach - silence on Iran, confusion on Syria, a-little-bit-pregnant warfare in Libya - is unequal to the challenges and opportunities presented by the Middle East today. We are trying to address a consistent regional challenge with inconsistent, country-specific responses. This is a piecemeal approach that will not serve our national security needs well.
Our Middle East policy is based on the answers to questions such as, “What should we do about another murderous dictator?” and “Where is the Security Council on this?” Instead, we should be asking, “Are these democratic uprisings across the Middle East for real?” and “Is the success of the uprisings in the United States’ national interests?”
It seems to me that the success of the Egyptian revolution showed that these uprisings are indeed for real and Sept. 11, 2001, stands as a reminder that the United States is best served by revolutionary success in the Middle East. Without re-litigating the war in Iraq, the fact is that the people of the Middle East have begun to see and taste freedom. Just like Eastern Europeans a generation ago, the people of the Middle East today are growing impatient for liberty. We should not be surprised when, in coming months, similar uprisings emerge in other countries. Nor should we dither for weeks at the United Nations trying to figure out what to do about it.
Three decades ago, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush exerted sufficient moral, political and economic pressure on the Soviet Union that - far sooner than experts expected - their successors needed to manage the re-entry of the Soviet empire into the international community. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, his successors will be in a similar situation. The liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the de-nuclearization of Libya, and the moral pressure of Mr. Bush’s freedom agenda is bearing fruit in the Middle East.
There is no reason for the United States to be caught flat-footed. Nor should there be any serious debate about our ultimate goals. Every successful democratic uprising in the Middle East will be like another anvil falling on radical Islamist ambitions. If the Libyan rebels are successful, they will embolden those in Bahrain, Syria and inevitably, Iran again. Even if only a few succeed the first time around, the remaining regimes will be weakened. Israel will be strengthened and Palestinian terror further isolated. The diplomatic buffers around Iran’s nuclear threats will disappear, leaving the regime in Tehran exposed and increasingly vulnerable.
The government in Iraq will be further stabilized by the emergence of more democracies in the region. Our efforts in Afghanistan will be further validated, earning us more trust among the Afghan people and, equally important, among the citizens of the region beyond Afghanistan.
The great lesson of the last decade in the Middle East is that tyranny is inherently unstable. Freedom and democracy must be our long-term goals. In this region, these goals are only ones that will truly serve America’s national interests and thus, the only ones really worth the sacrifice of our treasured blood.
International affairs and national security are a messy business. From time to time, our vital interests will appear to be in conflict, as may well be the case with energy-rich Saudi Arabia. Regardless, a clear, often-repeated and consistent statement of our interests will help us navigate the tensions over time.
These goals do not require endless war, but do demand eternal vigilance. They also demand a regional, strategic approach to the Middle East rather than ad hoc, state-by-state reaction. And most of all, they require decisive leadership from the president, leadership in the international community and here at home in clearly stated, publicly ratified policies.
If our long-term security depends on a democratic Middle East, and a democratic Middle East depends on American leadership, then it’s time for President Obama to finally step up before the American people, make a case for clear objectives in this region and finally earn that Nobel Prize.
Joe M. Allbaugh is president and CEO of Allbaugh International Group and former FEMA director under President George W. Bush.
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