"The United States Is Now on Democracy's Side."
Not so fast. In his most recent State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted the success of protests in Tunisia, declaring that "the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people." Then, shortly after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, Obama pledged that the United States stands "ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary -- and asked for -- to pursue a credible transition to a democracy." On Libya, the United States has joined the many international calls for Muammar al-Qaddafi to leave. Has the United States finally turned the page on its long-standing support for autocratic stability in the Arab world? George W. Bush started to turn that page in 2003 by eloquently declaring that the United States was moving away from its old ways and taking the cause of Arab democracy seriously. But various unsettling events, especially Hamas's coming to power in Palestine in 2006, caused the Bush administration to let the page fall back to its old place.
It is as yet uncertain whether a fundamental change in U.S. policy will occur. The dream of Arab democracy appears to resonate with Obama, and numerous U.S. officials and aid practitioners are burning the candle at both ends to find ways to support the emerging democratic transitions. Yet enduring U.S. interests in the region continue to incline important parts of the Washington policy establishment to hope for stability more than democracy. Concerns over oil supplies undergird a continuing strong attachment to the Persian Gulf monarchies. The need for close cooperation on counterterrorism with many of the region's military and intelligence services fuels enduring ties. Washington's special relationship with Israel prompts fears of democratic openings that could result in populist governments that aggressively play the anti-Israel card.
Given the complex mix of U.S. interests and the probable variety of political outcomes in the region, U.S. policy is unlikely to coalesce around any unified line. A shift in rhetoric in favor of democracy will undoubtedly emerge, but policy on the ground will vary greatly from country to country, embodying inconsistencies that reflect clashing imperatives. Comparing U.S. policies with regard to democracy in the former Soviet Union is instructive: sanctions against and condemnations of the dictator in Belarus, accommodation and even praise for the strongman in Kazakhstan, strenuous efforts at constructive partnership with undemocratic Russia, active engagement in democracy support in Moldova, a live-and-let-live attitude toward autocratic Azerbaijan, and genuine concern over democratic backsliding in Ukraine. A similar salad bar of policy lines toward a changed Middle East is easy to imagine.