POMED Notes: Can We Do More? The U.S. and the Arab Spring
The MENA Initiative hosted a panel discussion on Tuesday (9/11) entitled “Can We Do More? The U.S. and the Arab Spring” to discuss how the U.S. can assist in the transitions of Middle Eastern governments. The panel included Ambassador William B. Taylor, Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions at the State Department; Dr. Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University; and Mickey Bergman, Executive Director of the Global Alliance Program at the Aspen Institute.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Amb. William B. Taylor began by emphasizing how important it is that these regional transitions be successful, as they are significant not only for the citizens of the region, but also the interests of the U.S. The Ambassador reiterated that the U.S. seeks stability, which stems from working institutions and economic growth rather than authoritarian leaders. His office oversees the development of regional partnerships in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia as they attempt to implement institutional governance. He closed by expressing his hope for working together with these regional leaders as they attempt to solve their economic and political problems.
Dr. Nathan Brown, a seasoned researcher of Islamist politics, said that it is inevitable that Islamists will continue to be involved in regional elections. He commented that “in the past the U.S. didn’t know a lot about regional politics, but it did what it wanted anyway. Now, the U.S. is much more knowledgeable, but it is doing much less.” Brown sees this as a healthy response, because regional developments are what is most important, not the U.S. reaction to them. American policy towards the region reflected a “take me to your leader” mentality in recent decades, but now that politics have gained new life, the U.S. is trying to figure out how to react. He observed that the U.S. is adept at dealing with established democracies, such as Canada, but countries in transition are a much more difficult subject. He felt that the U.S. has performed well in the short term, specifically regarding its new relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Brown closed with three points that may inhibit the U.S. as it attempts to assist the transitions: 1) the U.S. is a little too insensitive on specific issues that it considers important, 2) Middle East domestic politics sometimes demonize groups who accept U.S. support, and 3) U.S. politicians are largely averse to dealing with Islamist movements in the region.
Mickey Bergman described the platform of “Partners for a New Beginning,” an initiative of the Aspen Institute. The organization is committed to making sure connections are built across regions, in both the public and private sectors. The PNB has established local chapters throughout the Middle East which allow members to express their needs and to attempt their own projects. Through these partnerships, they hope to offset the effects of disputes caused by high-level policy disputes.
During the Q & A session, Amb. Taylor laid out a few of the current U.S. efforts in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. He said that his office was currently coordinating with the Libyan government to bring students to the U.S. on exchange programs, working with Tunisia to implement job-skills matching, and collaborating with Egypt to address its budget shortfall. Furthermore, he said that the U.S. “recognizes that voices need to be heard [and that] the U.S. is working to advance values that promote an open society.” Professor Brown found that there is broad support in the aforementioned countries for freedom of expression, but wondered what the role of state media is in places undergoing transitions. He made clear that the U.S. cannot write the constitutions of these countries and that the only non-negotiable points should be the inclusion of international standards of human rights. To conclude the panel, Amb. Taylor addressed the issue of unemployment in the region. He said that the creation of jobs will come from increased investment by the international community and private regional stakeholders. He further encouraged these countries to undertake bilateral trade agreements, improve their infrastructure, and to cooperate closely on border protection in order to achieve the security necessary to stimulate their developing economies.