Editorial Board

Obama Has Tools to Turn Words Into Action in Middle East: View

In a May 19 speech at the State Department, President Barack Obama promised that the U.S. would use all its “diplomatic, economic and strategic tools” to promote reform across the Middle East and support transitions to democracy.

We couldn’t agree more.

Over the past six months, the Arab Spring has wrought the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, an armed insurgency in Libya, and uprisings in Bahrain and Syria. These seismic shifts have crucial implications for the U.S. and the world, yet the administration has too often appeared to have been caught flat-footed by events.

The president’s statement raised expectations for greater engagement that would be followed by concrete achievements. That hasn’t happened, and the failure to act could easily translate into disillusionment, especially now that the difficulty of creating democratic societies in the region is becoming more apparent.

There are signs that a window of opportunity could be closing. In Tunisia, where the revolts began with the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January, the switch to a representative government has stalled. In Egypt, protesters have returned to the streets, frustrated by the slow pace of economic and political change.

The outcome isn’t clear in either country. But it is apparent that Washington can no longer rely on Cairo to follow its lead on issues such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Losing Ground

There are signs that the Muslim Brotherhood is ascendant, while the secular so-called Facebook activists who led the demonstrations that brought down President Hosni Mubarak are losing ground. The U.S. has reached out to Islamic parties, and, so far, the Arab Spring has been remarkably free of anti-American sentiment. But that could change if the president doesn’t follow through on his promises.

Given the need to act quickly, the administration shouldn’t spend time inventing new and potentially controversial programs. And in an atmosphere of budget cutting and political polarization in Washington, support for building Arab democracies can only be a bipartisan effort.

Despite its mistakes in Iraq, the administration of President George W. Bush deserves credit for its broader effort to make democratic reform in the Middle East a U.S. priority. Obama could garner bipartisan support for a program of his own by building on that foundation.

Renewed Partnership

For example, the president should increase funding for the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a highly successful Bush administration program that was created and nurtured by Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Elizabeth.

MEPI gives small grants and political support to private Middle East groups that are working to strengthen civil society, empower Arab women and youth, encourage economic reform, and promote democratic change. The program has proved to be a cost-effective way to promote democratic values.

For example, the Movement for Justice and Development, a group working to encourage democratic change in Syria, used a $6 million MEPI grant to set up a satellite TV channel that has been broadcasting anti-government programming into the country since 2009. It has offered coverage of the protests there that undoubtedly isn’t available from the tightly controlled state media.

Envoy Needed

Most of all, the president should create a new high-level post to lead the U.S. government’s efforts to support democratic reform in the Middle East. The envoy needs to have the authority and resources to expand MEPI and similar U.S. initiatives. Obama should also follow through on the May 27 pledge by the Group of 8 countries to provide increased economic support and debt relief for the region and make sure that the developed nations fulfill their promise to back $20 billion in lending from international development banks.

Obama provided the model for such a post in his first week in office, when he named two powerful representatives, Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan and former Senator George Mitchell for Israeli-Arab peace talks. After Holbrooke’s death in December, his responsibilities were split among several State Department officials. Mitchell resigned May 13, and a replacement hasn’t been named.

The window of opportunity for the U.S. to affect the construction of a democratic Middle East is closing fast. By appointing a prominent individual respected by Democrats and Republicans, the president can send a strong signal of new U.S. priorities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.