In his very first days in office, President Barack Obama has signaled his sincerity in seeking to restore US credibility and return it to its adherence to values of respect for human rights and the pursuit of democracy. His executive orders to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and ban torture of suspected terrorists as well as his shift in tone although not in substance on Israel and the Palestinians create expectations. While the Middle East has heard this before from Washington and seen no shift in policy either towards the Palestinians or political reform in the Arab world, tangible changes of US policy, if pursued, are likely to be gradual. Given the fragile balance in the Middle East, policy change resembles an oil tanker seeking to change course.
Public opinion in the Middle East recoils from the unqualified support the Bush administration granted Israel in its war on Hamas and the impotence of the international community and Arab governments in seeking to impose a halt to the carnage. Hamas enjoys a groundswell of support from ordinary Arabs and Islamist opposition to Arab governments is riding high on the predicament of their governments. Fear that change would undermine Arab government support for US policy in the region has repeatedly in the past defeated past lofty US promises to nurture democracy in the Middle East. So has concern that change could produce governments more in tune with their people but less attentive to US needs. The Obama administration has yet to prove that it is able and willing to chart a course key to restoring US credibility and true to Obama's declared ambition in what constitutes a treacherous minefield. Inevitably, this would involve engagement with the region's Islamists, something the US and Europe has been reluctant to do even though it has done so on various occasions. To do so, the United States and Europe will have to balance their long-term objective of political reform with short-term geo-strategic goals such as Middle East peace, continued access to the region's energy resources and a coming to grips with Iranian regional ambition.
In a report entitled 'Europe, The United States and Middle Eastern Democracy: Repairing the Breach,' published by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Tamara Coffman Wittes and Richard Youngs, argue that to achieve both short and long term goals, the United States and Europe need to adopt a common approach. In a series of recommendations, they suggest:
1) Establishment of a high-level transatlantic forum to coordinate policies in the Middle East similar to the U.S.-E.U. strategic dialogue on Asia established in 2005.
2) The United States and Europe should leave Arab leaders in no doubt of the West’s continued interest in and attention to democratic growth and human rights improvements in the Middle East, in part through joint statements
3) Europe and the United States should agree on common criteria on rewards and positive conditionality as incentives for reform
4) The allies should uphold the principle that local civil society can seek and accept foreign assistance and make US and European support of Arab civil society non-negotiable
5) The United States and Europe should engage with non-violent Islamist organization, make clear that their defense of peaceful political activism is not selective, and exert pressure on regimes that crack down on such organizations or seek to prevent them from meeting with Western donors
6) US and European government funders should engage in sustained and regular dialogue on funding strategies for democratic development in specific states
7) The United States and Europe should stress that democratic development in the Middle East is a common interest shared with the peoples of the region, not a means to other ends.
For too long, the United States and Europe paid lip service to reform in the Middle East, but feared that commitment to a reform policy could endanger energy supplies, nurture the emergence of forces less inclined to embrace the compromise needed for a two-state solution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and embolden militant forces. Failure to insist on reform has produced regimes that increasingly lack credibility and opposition groups opposed to the West in part because the West failed to stand against repression and violation of human rights and refused to engage with them.
Lack of Western commitment to reform is stifling indigenous attempts at a more modern interpretation of Islam that challenges the views of the Islamists. Arab regimes, seeking to neutralize the appeal of the Islamists, often close ranks with conservative religious forces opposed to more liberal approaches to Islam, such as the Koranists, an Islamic reformation movement that focuses exclusively on the Koran and opposes implementation of Sharia law.
"For nearly a decade, as (the Koranists have) gained momentum, they have come under increased attack from the Egyptian government for their religious ideas. Al Azhar University, which is based in Cairo and is the leading center for conservative Sunni learning in the world, has rejected the views of the Koranists and has sought to systematically dismantle the movement. To curry favor with this influential religious establishment, the Egyptian government has brutally cracked down on members of the Koranist movement, leading to the imprisonment and torture of over 20 members and the exile of many more," says Ahmed Subhy Mansour, president of Washington's International Quranic Society.
Progress in seeking a modus vivendi for long-term Israeli Palestinian coexistence would ease Western efforts to nudge Arab governments towards democratic reform. Palestine constitutes a double-edged sword for Arab rulers. For too long, it served as a lightening rod that distracted attention from problems at home. Increasingly, Arab inability to further a peace agenda that incorporates Palestinian aspirations and impotence to force a halt to the latest war is fueling support for Islamist opposition groups. A coordinated US and European peace effort would allow the allies to help regimes embark on reform.
In a separate study, India's Strategic Foresight Group, backed by governments or other agencies in Norway, Qatar, Switzerland and Turkey, has concluded that conflict in the Middle East since 1991 has cost the region $12 trillion. The study says the region's population could have been twice as rich as they are today had conflicts, that prevent the Middle East from capitalizing on its location and resources, been resolved. The report looks at the cost of conflict across the region, including the Israeli Arab dispute, the war in Iraq, tension between Iran and Israel rivalry between Hamas and the Palestine Authority and al-Qaeda. It estimates the opportunity costs of conflict in the region at 2% of growth in gross domestic product and suggest that peace coupled with good governance and sound economic policies would allow some countries to grow at 8%. The report says with peace incomes per capita of the population in Israel in 2010 would be $44,241 instead of $23,304, on the West Bank and in Gaza $2,427 as opposed to $1,220 and in Iraq $9,681 against the current $2,375. The report put the cost since 200 of Israeli checkpoints on the West bank impeding Palestinian freedom of movement at 100 million person hours. "Considering the enormity of the costs evidenced in this report which have direct or indirect negative consequences for the whole world, the urgent necessity of a stronger international engagement is inescapable," says Thomas Greminger, a senior Swiss diplomat who worked on the study.