The role America should play in Syria's current uprising is a deeply contentious issue in Washington on both sides of the political divide. It has given rise to a debate over what became known as America's "Freedom Agenda" during the George W. Bush administration. Does the United States have an obligation to help those who seek freedom from tyranny? Should Washington promote democracy in the Middle East even if free and fair elections could produce governments even more hostile to U.S. interests?
To answer these questions, policymakers must have a clear understanding of U.S. interests in the Middle East and then match our objectives with the correct strategy and tactics — all of which requires a realistic reading of what is happening on the ground. To date, we have not done so.
Since the Arab uprisings began in December 2010, the American government has adopted inconsistent and rudderless policies for each country: While President Obama worked to remove President Hosni Mubarak after a week of Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square and joined NATO forces with Libyan rebels to defeat Muammar Qaddafi, the Obama administration has done little to end President Bashar Assad's brutal suppression of Syrian protestors, to push Assad from power, or to provide the opposition with the kind of decisive support it seeks.
Many in Washington are internalizing selective and general lessons from the U.S. experience in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya in order to assess how best to handle the Arab uprisings — especially in Syria — moving forward. The lessons appear to give U.S. policymakers who wish to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs the choice of spilling a lot of American blood and treasure (Iraq), bringing the Muslim Brotherhood or those inspired by them to power (Egypt, Tunisia, and beyond), or increasing al-Qaeda's offensive capabilities (Libya, and now Syria, where the bloody conflict continues with the daily death toll topping 200, and the total body count reaching more than 35,000).
But such outcomes don't have to be the result of U.S. intervention and a desire to promote democracy.
Generally speaking, the countries of the Middle East do not possess the preconditions for a successful democracy — namely, a vibrant civil society, state institutions, a strong middle class, respect for the rule of law, concepts of individual liberty, and an independent judiciary. Where they are lacking, radical Islamists have filled the vacuum after Arab dictators have fallen. Egypt provides the clearest example, and while the Muslim Brotherhood does not rule Libya, Qaddafi's fall provided al-Qaeda-affiliated groups the opportunity to mount the well-planned attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, resulting in the deaths of four Americans — including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
While a survey of Syrian opposition attitudes demonstrates that the rebels are not the Islamic extremists that Western media paints them to be, radical Islamists could come to power if Washington doesn't intervene. The rebels, according to the survey, "solidly support religious tolerance, legal equality, freedom of expression, and a constitution that mentions religion respectfully but is otherwise secular. They look to Western or moderately Islamist Turkish political models, while rejecting those of Saudi Arabia and especially Iran. And they want Western help, while not requesting any boots on the ground."
What is required now is American leadership that is willing to work with our allies and punish our adversaries. Looking further ahead, democracy promotion should focus on the development of secular, nationalist, and liberal political organizations that could eventually compete with Islamic parties. The United States should not push for quick elections; democracy is not defined by elections alone.
Make no mistake: A Jeffersonian democracy is not in the offing in the Middle East. But there are some common themes that the United States should encourage. In the region, democracy can be defined as a government that reflects the will of the people, has an independent judiciary, upholds the rights of minorities and women, has a free press, and allows its citizens to own property. Most important, people should have the right to express their opinions free from threats and intimidation. All of this takes time, and no matter who comes to power in the near term, the United States should continue to work with the regional moderates to organize — they will be our allies in the future.
For decades the people of the region have been taught that their problems were because of Israel, the United States, and a host of outsiders. That façade is now collapsing, and it is important to promote the idea of individual responsibility — to look inward for the answers. The pathway forward will not be an easy one. But decades of authoritarian rule have proven to be an unmitigated failure for the people of the Middle East. It may take decades more before they realize that Islam is also not the answer. The Iranian people appear to have learned this lesson; the Arab world may not be too far behind.
Blood in the Arab street should not be necessary to remind us of our principles and values, or to confirm our interest in promoting democracy abroad. Even if the "Global War on Terrorism" has been abandoned, there still exists a war of ideas in the Middle East. And the most important front in that war lies not between Islam and the West, but between radical Islamists and secular Muslims who see liberalization rather than indoctrination as the most promising path forward. Collectively, the Arab world has to want democracy and liberalization more than we do. And where they do, the United States has a role to play in guiding the outcome. Syria is a start.