How Will Uprisings Change U.S. Policy in the Middle East?

President Barack Obama makes voices support for Egyptian protesters on Feburary 10, 2011 at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, deputy national security advisor to the Clinton administration, former UN Ambassador, and president of the Connect U.S. Fund, and Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister (2002-2004) and deputy prime minister (2004-2005) of Jordan, currently the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation joined us to talk about the U.S. response to democratic movements beyond Egypt.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have forever changed the relationship between citizens and rulers in North Africa and the Middle East—but will it shift the U.S. policy there?

Nancy Soderberg said there's already been a sea change in Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama's public remarks on the latest protests sweeping the region—in Iran—compared to their words regarding Iran's "Green Revolution" of 2009, which were tame in comparison. Civil and human rights defenders are not entirely satisfied, but Soderberg, a former ambassador, says the U.S. must tread lightly, or they will be pounced upon by the Iranian government as acting imperiously in the affairs of other countries to serve American interests.

They're trying to pretend that the protesters in the streets are American stooges, so we have to be very careful not to feed into that narrative. People know that we support them, but what does that mean to support them? Are we going to go in and overthrow this regime? No. Are we going to try and have open dialogue and communications with them? Yes.

Basically, 'damned if we do, damned if we don't,' is the U.S. relationship status with the Middle East. Soderberg noted that the U.S. has been trying to spread democracy and support reforms in the Middle East for a decade, but we haven't struck the right cord yet.

We had a deal with the Arab world for 30 years which was, 'you give us cheap oil, a stable supply of oil, and we'll stay out of your business.' That deal fell apart on 9/11. First of all, oil is no longer cheap, and secondly, they weren't stable, and obviously threatened us. Reform in the Arab world has been something since 9/11 the U.S. government has been trying to push. We didn't know how to do it. George Bush thought we would invade Iraq and democracy would blossom all around the Arab world. That did not happen.

Even if the U.S. government wanted to remove all the world's evil autocrats to institute representative governments (and if history tells us anything, it's that the U.S. government has generally prioritized stability over democracy), it couldn't do it overnight. Iraq was a lesson in that type of bravado.

The United States, even though we're the most powerful nation on earth, can't wave a magic wand and have these dictators fall all over the world. They wouldn't fall if the United States cut off aid tomorrow. You have to work with a process of transition in the country.

It's also apparent that the sequence of events we saw in Tunisia and Egypt will not necessarily be mimicked in the rest of the world, despite the desire of the populace, Soderberg said.

Iran has made it clear it will use violence to quell any uprising, Bahrain was using tear gas, Pakistan is trying to stay ahead of the curve, Jordan is trying to stay ahead of the curve. They're all going to play out differently, but people are the same all over the world and they want what we call in our most recent book prosperity in terms of their peers. They want to live a little bit better than everybody else and they're happy. And that's different for every society but the desire to be free is the same, and people have just had it all over the world.

One thing is clear—the media must resist the temptation to put all the region's diverse countries in the same basket. Marwin Muasher,  former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, pointed out that while protesters in Jordan are demanding reform, they are not asking for removal of the king, who is still a unifying force among the country's tribes. Muasher maintained that the king has a blueprint for reform, but has been blocked by a powerful elite.

The problem has been, in my view, the political elite that is benefitting from the status quo, that has resisted efforts to reform the country, not just coming from the streets, but ironically coming from the king himself.

Time will tell if the uprisings we've seen over the past month actually result in true societal change. At the very least, Muasher and Soderberg both contend that after this powerful display of force and discipline from a young and technologically savvy population, Obama and his government will have to recalibrate its policy in the region. Muasher said that could be a fundamental shift.

I think the U.S. for a long time has adopted a policy of stability over democracy in the Middle East, basically because of oil and Israel. That policy obviously is resulting in neither democracy or stability, and I think that the U.S. right now is revisiting that policy, and maybe thinking about a policy where they prioritize both democracy and stability.

Listen to Nancy Soderberg on The Brian Lehrer Show:


Listen to Marwan Muasher on The Brian Lehrer Show: