Meghan L. O’Sullivan
As the violent anti-American protests in the Muslim world subside, those in the region and in the United States are wondering whether the upheaval will have a permanent effect.
Although by no means inevitable, these events could have a silver lining. If they spur leaders in North Africa to reassess their economic and security policies — or if they prod America to lean toward rather than away from North Africa — the region could end up being better off than it was before it erupted on Sept. 11, 2012.
One way in which the recent upheaval might have a lasting effect is on how freedom of speech is (or isn’t) respected in the new Middle East. Last week we witnessed a serious exchange of views on the subject among world leaders at the United Nations. US President Barack Obama sought to explain to the world why Americans hold so dear the right to state even the harshest of opinions; the presidents of Egypt and Yemen presented very different views on the limits of expression.
The conversation roughly coincides with efforts to write new constitutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It is possible that the internal debates surrounding civil liberties in those countries will have greater sophistication after a real-world test of society’s limits. Unfortunately, it is also likely that advocates of more “Western” notions of free speech will be hampered by association with the offensive video.
Although shifts in Libyan or Egyptian politics would be significant, a more important legacy of the violence will be how it affects US commitment to the Middle East. Understandably, the first reaction of many Americans was to throw their hands up in dismay, and to ask why we should continue to spend money and political capital on a part of the world that is so clearly dysfunctional and anti-American.
This is exactly the wrong response. The problem isn’t that the United States has done too much for these countries in transition; it is that it hasn’t yet done enough. A fear of seeming heavy-handed has led Americans to be nearly hands-off. Closer engagement doesn’t mean smothering governments that want and need to keep their political distance from Washington in order to maintain public support, nor does it entail a greater military presence. But it does mean a more systematic strategy toward the region, one that recognizes the tentative nature of every achievement made since the Arab revolutions began and seeks to bolster the fortunes of those looking to build moderate, economically open societies — even if they have conservative and Islamic leanings.
The United States should consistently stand up for the American principles that are admired globally: political and economic liberty. It can also infuse the Middle East with economic advice, technical assistance, private-sector help and educational partnering.
These are America’s comparative advantages.
Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former deputy national security adviser for George W. Bush, is a Bloomberg View columnist.