This post is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security & Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22.
For decades, American presidents and secretaries of State tied U.S. national security to stability in the Middle East. Arab dictatorships might not be pretty, but if they were pro-American, the United States could tolerate them. The Islamic Revolution in Iran reinforced this dynamic, as fear of political Islam led the United States into an ever-deeper embrace with regional autocrats.
"The new president will need to decide whether democracy in the process is more important than democracy as the final result."
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian-American sociologist persecuted by the Mubarak regime, described regional autocrats and theocrats as mirror images of each other. Dictators monopolize state media, while Islamists monopolize the mosques. Both recruit off the specter of the other and unite only to attack mercilessly the liberals who seek the ground in between.
While President Bush sought to break this dynamic, the State Department quickly reverted to business as usual. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for democracy in Egypt in 2005, less than two years later, she pointedly avoided the term during her return visit to Cairo. In 2006, Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, told Egyptian students that Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could even win an election in America.
Dictators get old, however. Even if Tunisians and Egyptians had not risen up to overthrow their leaders, pinning American security to septuagenarian and octogenarian autocrats seldom makes a solid long-term strategy.
With the old order collapsing, the next occupant of the White House has little choice but to reorient the American approach to the region. However, because the United States for so long deferred to dictators and delayed pushing for reform, the liberals remained weak and disorganized.
The new president will need to decide whether democracy in the process is more important than democracy as the final result. Should the United States remain neutral to all political contenders if doing so guarantees a Muslim Brotherhood victory? Or should the United States try to build the capacity of liberal, non-Islamist parties? Should the United States ever recognize the legitimacy of a political party contesting elections if that same party also wields a militia, as does Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah? Further, if Muslim Brotherhood affiliates win elections fair and square, as they did in Tunisia, is it in the interest of the United States to recognize, subsidize, and work closely with the new governments? Lastly, how should the United States react if, as the new regimes rewrite their constitutions, they turn from democracy toward theocracy?
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI