Steer Middle East policy toward democracy promotion


The next U.S. administration should steer its Middle East policy toward democracy promotion across the region, argues Charles W. Dunne, a Middle East Institute scholar and former U.S. diplomat. The Middle East and the transnational threats it has spawned have been a focal point of debate among U.S. presidential candidates in 2016, suggesting the region’s turmoil will demand time, diplomacy and resources irrespective of who wins office, he writes in a new policy briefing. While the region’s various conflicts receive the attention of presidential hopefuls, the key question of democracy promotion and human rights in the Middle East is being neglected or even scorned.

All candidates have thus far shared a reluctance in becoming too entrenched in the Middle East’s woes, but failing to address the dearth of democracy and personal liberties in the region, and pursuing a military-only approach, will not resolve the region’s instability, Dunne contends:

The United States should intensify its outreach to civil society organizations, who face growing repression from their governments. For many NGOs, access to foreign funding—often a principal source of program funds—has been cut off; restrictions placed on their activities; contacts with international partners limited or criminalized; and their employees arrested. A wide range of rights groups and other organizations doing unrelated work have been closed, and a number of foreign organizations expelled from countries ranging from Egypt to the Gulf. The next president must make outreach to regional NGOs a point of emphasis for U.S. embassies in the region. It should also engage regional governments on these abuses, and work with American and European civil society to devise tactics to help them maintain ties and programs with NGOs in the region.

Key Points

  • Demands for democracy and greater political space will return in the Middle East. Old methods of repression will not hold back the tide
  • The factors that spawned the Arab Spring remain in place, which should deeply concern U.S. policymakers
  • U. S. interest in stabilizing the region requires addressing the underlying causes of instability, including a lack of democracy and political participation
  • The next administration should increase funding for civil society in the region, among other democratization tools, and broadly endorse the opening of political space and respect for human rights
  • The United States should condition its military assistance to regional allies on improving human rights and democratic reform

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