A number of progressives (myself included) have been surprised and disheartened by President Obama’s approach to the Middle East. Snarky “Candidate Obama vs. President Obama” posts have become an Internet cottage industry. The man who many supported (including the Nobel Committee) as a leader who would reduce American military adventures abroad—has instead increased our troop commitments in Afghanistan (with with the coming drawdown) and opened new fronts in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. A number of neo-conservatives have been smugly congratulating the President for signing on to George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” for the Middle East (and beyond).
The Arab Spring is further fueling this version of the “Obama Doctrine” (sidestepping another cottage industry here). After all, Bush and Co. promised that a newly-democratic Iraq would provide a bulwark for the spread of democratic institutions throughout the region. Theirs was a sort of freedom-by-ideological-infection strategy. Once a democracy moves into an autocratic region, all of a sudden, it’s—Whoops! There goes the neighborhood! A Robespierre for every Middle Eastern country, and cheap oil for the USA!
Of course, given a few years hindsight on Bush’s Administration, you don’t have to be a DNC partisan to realize that this is a too simple view of the world (by far). International affairs aren’t that easy.* After all, there’s ample evidence that the revolutions of the Arab Spring have much more to do with human desperation—not ideological envy of nearby democratic regimes. High jobless rates, low social mobility, and economic uncertainty make a dangerous brew for any regime—autocratic or otherwise. Another way of putting this: democratic freedoms in Tunisia and Egypt aren’t secure because of recent revolutions. The underlying economic causes (not the ONLY underlying causes, but undoubtedly catalyzing forces) could yet endanger the Arab Spring’s promise.
So what might Obama do now? Instead of expanding military engagement, he should be crafting and pursuing an aggressive economic development agenda. Over at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ambassador Shaun Donnelly has some great starting ideas:
Even absent massive new infusions of aid, the U.S. government has significant tools and experience at its disposal. Agencies such as the Department of Commerce, Export-Import Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), Trade and Development Agency, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have experience across the region and could begin making a difference on the ground relatively quickly. In addition, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative and Washington’s free trade agreement (FTA) and bilateral investment treaty (BIT) programs have already been proven to work.
Donnelly explains these resources and options in more detail—it’s an encouraging, fascinating piece, and it’s not long. Read it.
Taken seriously, Donnelly’s argument (one that I, among others, share—as TN readers already know) could be transformative for American policy in the Middle East. While it’s not the case that economic investment and global commerce are singularly sufficient to establish and protect freedom, or democracy, or stability in any particular country, it IS the case that they make all of these more likely to develop and easier to sustain.
If you’re a conservative and you’re suspicious of development programs’ dovishness, you should remember—as Donnelly emphasizes—that the best development policies help to build overseas markets for American companies. Even if we don’t have the political will or public resources to invest aid money in the Middle East, free trade agreements and other policy shifts could reap big dividends for U.S. companies—AND job creation for workers. Still not convinced? Think of it this way—if we don’t take the investment/trade lead in the Middle East, China will. Delaying significant American investment in the region only costs us market share (and geo-political advantages).
If you’re a progressive and you’re tired of Bush-style military adventures abroad, a new Freedom Agenda still makes perfect sense. Remember—over the last decade we’ve spent the equivalent of the ANNUAL USAID budget in Iraq & Afghanistan every 4.3 days. If we’d taken those trillion (and change) dollars and spent them on development and diplomacy, we almost certainly would have achieved more while spending less money and spilling less blood.
Now, for everyone: despite some recent domestic-first, isolationist rhetoric (both from the president and the GOP), there’s no going back to the good old days. The global market’s here to stay, and the sooner that the United States develops a coherent development strategy, the sooner we’ll be on the path to a robust economic recovery. Even better, we’ll be alleviating human economic desperation overseas without further costly wars. That’s a Freedom Agenda we can all get behind.
* Neither is domestic fiscal policy, for that matter—but the Bush Administration wasn’t famous for its nuanced view of the world. If the political world is fully prismatic, the Bush Administration seemed to be thinking only in primary colors.