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Op-Ed

The Neoliberal Take on the Middle East

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A consensus is emerging in Washington that the greater Middle East constitutes the primary strategic challenge of our time and that the West must fundamentally rethink the way it approaches this region. In the past, Washington assumed it didn’t have to care about the internal order of these countries so long as they accommodated our interests in their foreign policies. If things got really bad, Washington would step in and intervene, in a modern-day version of the popular game whack-a-mole.

But whack-a-mole isn’t a very good game, and it’s an even worse foreign policy. Sept. 11, 2001, taught us the price we pay for ignoring the underlying problems of the region. The question now is how best to transform the Middle East so that it no longer produces people who want to kill us in great numbers and increasingly have the ability to do so. To be sure, traditionalists across the government and in foreign policy still argue that such goals are beyond the pale and that the West cannot possibly “solve” the problems of the region and must instead manage the status quo better to limit our risk.

But this approach is rapidly losing out, and for good reason; if Las Vegas were giving odds, this wouldn’t be a good bet. Instead, the debate is increasingly between the neoconservative strategy of coercive democratization and what might be called the neoliberal alternative emerging among internationalist Democrats and moderate Republicans. Neocons and neoliberals recognize that the status quo in the Middle East is producing anti-Americanism, terrorism and failed and rogue states and has gone way beyond “management.” Both agree the West must promote the transformation and democratization of the region. But they disagree profoundly on how best to do so. Neoliberals believe that coercive democratization is bound to fail and that true success will come only from a long-term effort to help push Arabs to reform their own societies from within. This leads to four fundamental differences.

  • Preemption and use of force. Neocons believe that the United States must use a high-pressure approach to compel Arab regimes to change, by force if necessary. They argue that the region’s problems are so great and the danger of another 9/11 so real—this time with chemical, biological or radiological weapons—that the end justifies the means. If the regimes of the region won’t change, American power should be used to bring change about. The invasion and reconstruction of Iraq are not an exception but a precedent that, if need be, can and will be replicated elsewhere.

    Neoliberals, among whom we number ourselves, believe in political preemption first and military preemption only as a last resort. We supported the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq because we concluded that force was the only way to lance these boils. But force will not work as a normal tool of policy or social engineering in the Middle East. Our goal must be to have the Arabs embrace democracy and modernization, not to force it down their throats. At present there really are only two political voices in the Arab world: One is the regimes and their cronies, the other the Islamic fundamentalists. We need to help foster alternatives. A growing number of Arabs are calling for these changes, and we must find ways to help them transform their societies even if it takes decades and not months.

  • Nation-building. Neocons don’t like nation-building, and the Republican Party has largely opposed it for more than a decade. Thus, while neoconservatives talk of democracy promotion, they have a hard time carrying through on it. Nothing better exemplifies this than the administration’s fits of attention deficit disorder when it is forced to promote democracy on the ground in ways that go against its own ideological instincts—as is evident today in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Neoliberals see nation-building as a strategic tool. Winning the peace is as important as winning the war, only harder. In Iraq it is particularly worth the commitment because a stable, prosperous and pluralist Iraq could eventually become a model for the region, demonstrating that it is possible to be both “Arab” and “democratic.”

  • The Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Many neocons are skeptical about the peace process. While they rhetorically embrace the goal of Palestinian democracy as a key part of a two-state solution, they prefer to do nothing, excusing their inaction by insisting that Arab autocrats first convert to democracy. Neoliberals embrace the peace process as a priority both for the security of Israel and to open the door for a broader transformation of the region. As long as the Arab-Israeli conflict simmers, those opposed to change in the Arab world will use the pretext of an Israeli threat to avoid reform. Moreover, successfully brokering peace between Israel and the Arabs will enhance America’s credibility as an advocate of democratic reform in the region.

  • Empire vs. leadership. Neocons talk about empire and American primacy as a legitimate goal. They eschew traditional alliances as burdensome and prefer ad hoc coalitions or simply going it alone. They believe might makes right and international rules and norms are there for the bad guys, not us. Neoliberals believe in leadership through persuasion and strong multilateral alliances. Transforming the Middle East will take decades of sustained political, economic and strategic cooperation. That requires revamping our alliances, not discarding them. We want America to inspire not only fear among our adversaries but admiration and support from our friends.

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