No going back: How America and the Middle East can turn the page to a productive future

Demonstrators carry national flags during an anti-government protest in Tripoli, Lebanon October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim - RC1D594342A0

Ever since President Trump abruptly decided to withdraw troops from northern Syria, there’s been growing debate about the role of America in the Middle East. And there should be. This is a region that about 400 million souls call home. And it’s right on Europe’s doorstep. If we’ve learned anything since 9/11, it should be that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere….Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In other words, anger on one side of the world can strike at the hearts and lives of us here in America.

So what injustices are making folks angry in the Middle East today?

From sea to shining sea (in this case from the Mediterranean to the Arabian seas), the Arab world — with few exceptions — either sees citizens rising up in protest, citizens who are suffering from government repression, or citizens living through civil war. Although each country is unique, the core complaints across them are some combination of poverty, corruption, and an absence of freedom.

Country by country

Let’s start in Lebanon, where this past week hundreds of thousands of people across the multi-religious country have been demonstrating to protest the government’s failure for decades to provide even the most basic services like water and electricity. They’re also protesting against a system where the same families have dominated government — and reaped huge financial spoils — since the country’s founding. Thus far, the protestors have already gotten meaningful concessions from the government, and are calling for more reforms of the sectarian system that on the one hand has created disenfranchisement and corruption but has also kept the peace among the religiously diverse Christian, Shiite, and Sunni country.

Similarly, Iraqis have also been protesting in large numbers against unemployment, ineffective government services, and that regional culprit, corruption. In Iraq, through a similar sectarian system, the rich have been getting richer and the poor, poorer.

Across the region, ordinary citizens are rising up against an elite class that is accumulating enormous wealth through enormous corruption and for basic rights. This is a region where in most countries, the top 1% generally earns more than the bottom 50%. That might have been tolerated in a pre-social media world, but now that ordinary citizens can see the extreme wealth of the elite, and can use social media to organize, extreme income inequality just isn’t stable any longer.

Now let’s turn to Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, where the situation is very different than Iraq and Lebanon, but whose citizens still suffer from varying degrees of the similar problems of stagnant wages and lack of democracy.

Jordan — though making progress on corruption — hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and faces growing protests about wages by ordinary citizens. In Egypt, protests against corruption and inequality are eliciting a brutal response. And in Morocco, sizable demonstrations by teachers also erupted earlier this year.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, face a unique triple-problem of: first, a West Bank where the leader is nearly 15 years into a four-year term; second, a Gaza Strip that is nearly uninhabitable, with the highest unemployment rates on earth; and third, an Israeli military that still sits on top of this system, not-so-indirectly controlling the Palestinians’ movement outside these tiny territories and the import of the most basic goods. (Israel even controls the population registry).

Then there are the cases of Algeria and Sudan. which have gone through mass protests with millions on the streets — revolutions leading to changes in government — and are still finding their ways forward.

Libya, Syria, and Yemen, in contrast, have gone through a different set of experiences: outright civil wars that first began as street protests to confront corruption, poverty, and lack of freedom, which sadly have led to a nearly complete breakdown of ordinary life for vast swaths of the population. All three are in some ways divided, with regional and global powers often making the situation worse. And Yemen is facing a humanitarian catastrophe of biblical proportions, which is perhaps the worst in the world.

Even America’s closest allies like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — which might seem stable, and where military spending is among the highest on earth per capita — have to resort to such significant repression of freedom of expression that Freedom House ranks them as some of the worst in the world. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the bottom half earn one of lowest proportions of income at the world, at 8% and 9% respectively.

Although these sets of countries have vastly different political and security contexts, citizens of all suffer from many of the same ills. Only in Tunisia, and perhaps a few other places, is there modest hope that the current levels of — and trajectories for — freedom, corruption, and prosperity are promising.

Back in Washington

So what’s the way out of this mess? In the first instance, the solution is for Arab citizens to decide for themselves. That’s probably the most important thing for those of us in Washington (and across the international community) to remember. It isn’t our problem, it’s theirs.

In Washington, we need to remember that we play second fiddle to ordinary citizens on the ground. At the same time, there are a few things we can do. We can remember that we can’t actually build nations. We can’t create democracies. We can’t eliminate corruption. But what we can do, what we must do, is avoid making all these things worse.

We should begin by at least trying to avoid deploying our own soldiers in a way that props up the least democratic countries. And we should use our military aid in a way that encourages countries to do more to respect basic rights and fight corruption — and not allow our assistance to support repression. This won’t be easy. Our military is already deployed in some challenging places from where we may not want to extricate ourselves for geostrategic and counterterrorism reasons. But we can and should always nudge for incremental reform no matter the resistance.

We should also deploy our foreign assistance and trade agreements in a way that — while aware that we can’t directly build democracies or nations — more modestly encourages societies and governments to work, ideally together, towards eliminating corruption, fighting poverty, ending discrimination, improving education, addressing health crises, improving the environment, and supporting fair labor practices. While some governments may not be too keen on expanding freedoms, they may be very willing to fight corruption or reduce poverty. We should work with them on these priorities, while insisting that — at the very, very least — they don’t turn back the clock on freedom, and ideally advance it.

And we can deploy our diplomats with the vision that our actions should seek to advance freedom, fight corruption, and end poverty. And even if governments are resistant to this approach, it doesn’t mean that a smart foreign policy can’t find ways to make some progress on those three key areas. It isn’t as if we are going to shutter our embassies and go home; we have to use them for good. The flip side of this, though, is that things won’t always turn out how we want them to. For example, on the democracy front, when countries do hold elections, we must learn to live with the results, whether we like them or not; that doesn’t mean we need to be friends with governments we despise.

Finally, because this is happening at a time when the United States has declining influence in the region, it is all the more important that we undertake this effort in partnership with an international coalition, starting with some of our NATO allies.

This is not some starry-eyed, utopian perspective. It’s based on hard-nosed analysis of what the U.S. and its allies can and can’t accomplish in working together.

While we must be patient in our effort and modest in our expectations, we can set our sights on a world where — from sea to shining sea — not only do prosperity, security, and freedom at least begin to improve across the Middle East, but that these improvements can in turn benefit America and our allies as well.