Now more than ever, U.S. must side with activists struggling to install democracy

Recent developments in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere have convinced skeptics that U.S. human rights promotion in the Middle East causes more harm than good by inciting instability – positioning the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-Western forces to win elections or otherwise seize power.

The argument has superficial appeal, but it rests on problematic assumptions about the region and U.S. human rights promotion. In fact, the case for promoting human rights in the region is stronger than ever.

Regional stability, which U.S. leaders often pursued in hopes of securing a reliable flow of oil, is becoming an artifact of history. As the Arab Spring made clear, change is coming whether we like it or not. The region’s people are unusually young and increasingly restive about the freedom and opportunity that their governments have failed to provide.

A more democratic region would reduce threats to U.S. interests because democracies tend neither to make war with one another nor sponsor terrorism. A freer, more prosperous region would boost trade and investment opportunities for U.S. businesses, generating more prosperity in the United States.

But if change is inevitable, it will not automatically bring the results we want. So, rather than cede the region’s future to either home-grown jihadists or the outside influence of China and Russia – neither of which shares our values or interests – the United States must promote the forces on the ground that are genuinely working for a freer, more democratic Middle East.

To boost our chances of success, we should keep five rules in mind:

  • Speak consistently, not episodically: Our leaders must speak regularly and forcefully for human rights, because the region’s people know that, in the Middle East, we have often sacrificed our values at the altar of stability. Only by speaking forcefully, to friendly and adversarial governments alike, will we nurture support from democratic forces and its broader population.
  • Respect the home turf: While promoting our values, we cannot try to impose our own formula for freedom and democracy on a region with its own history and culture, its own ethnic and religious rivalries. We should merely encourage the region’s people that, in whatever governments they construct, those governments should reflect the values of freedom and tolerance, transparency and accountability.
  • Build beyond elections: We should not repeat the mistake of equating elections with longlasting freedom and democracy. Indeed, as we see today in the region, elections alone can empower profoundly anti-democratic forces that, once in power, may have little interest in holding future elections. Instead, we should help transitioning nations plant the values and create the institutions that ensure long-term freedom and democracy. The values include free speech and free assembly, tolerance and non-violence, and women and minority rights; the institutions include opposition parties, a free and independent media, and a thriving civil society.
  • Tie U.S. aid to human rights: We should condition U.S. economic, political and military aid as much as possible on a nation’s progress in protecting human rights. The United States retains enormous capacity to influence other governments through economic aid, diplomatic support, military sales and cooperation, trade and investment, and leverage over the lending decisions of multilateral development banks. Our leaders can back up their rhetoric about human rights with tangible action by linking U.S. aid to a government’s record of protecting rights.
  • Focus on the long term: The conflict between long-term visions of more freedom and democracy and short-term exigencies of protecting U.S. security interests is a fact of life. But, it must not be a paralyzing one.

We must resist the trap of moving from one short-term exigency to another and losing sight of the long-term picture. Promoting human rights is hard work, and it requires a commitment that we have not always sustained.

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