We Need More Engagement in the Middle East, Not Less

The first Muslim-American elected to Congress explains why we need to judge new governments in the Middle East by their actions, not their religious affiliation

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Ed Giles / Getty Images

A protest following midday prayers in Tahrir Square on September 14, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt.

Early last month, extremists attacked our diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt, killing Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans following the release of a crude anti-Islamic video. The reaction has sparked urgent discussions about the “Arab Spring” transforming into an “Islamist Winter.” Some of my colleagues in Congress say the only option for the United States is to disengage from the region.

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But now is not the time to cut U.S. aid to Libya and other Arab countries. Given long-time U.S. support for Arab autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and, at one time, Saddam Hussein, cutting aid would send a message to the millions of people yearning for freedom that “we’ll support your oppressors, but not you.” As both President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said in their addresses to the United Nations General Assembly last week, instead of withdrawal, we need a deeper engagement strategy on economic, cultural and security fronts that is sensitive to local concerns.

The millions of protesters who flowed into Tahrir Square and dusty streets across the Middle East in 2011 weren’t trying to trade secular dictatorships for religious ones, but rather tyranny for democracy. According to a Pew poll from July, overwhelming majorities in these countries support democracy and reject extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Egyptians, for example, favor democracy by a 2–1 margin.

While support for competitive elections and free speech is strong across the region, many people also want their religion to play an important role in political life. Just as there is active debate in the U.S. about the role of faith in politics on issues ranging from school prayer to faith-based initiatives, there are diverging opinions in the Arab world. And just as we have diverse political movements ranging from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement, these countries have a broad range of opinions on the best path forward for their new democracies. We should judge the new governments by their actions, not their religious affiliation.

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For example, we must acknowledge that the Egyptian government was far too slow to protect our embassy in Cairo when it was first attacked. However, it has taken positive steps since President Obama intervened. In Libya, government forces fought courageously to protect our consulate, and their government is now working aggressively to bring the perpetrators to justice. Despite the tragedy, reformers, including over 30 women, won the most seats in Libya’s election.

Instead of abandoning the region’s people at a critical moment in their history, the United States should broaden its economic, educational and security relationships in the region. First, we should diversify and deepen our commercial relationships beyond oil and natural gas. The Arab Spring was largely a response to economic desperation. Strengthening our engagement through trade missions and entrepreneurship summits like the one President Obama convened in 2010 will help expand opportunity in the region and create new markets for U.S. exports.

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Second, we should increase educational and cultural exchanges with Arab countries. In 2009, the Iraqi government doubled the number of Fulbright scholarships for Iraqi students to study in the United States. It became the largest Fulbright program in the region — at 70 scholarships a year. Educational and cultural exchanges are one of the best ways to improve relations and build human capacity in the region. We should partner with Arab governments to boost the number of exchanges for students, teachers, legislators and journalists.

Third, we should enhance our security relationships through programs to train police officers, advise efforts to collect weapons and disband militias, and help secure borders and ports of entry. These initiatives would lay the groundwork for democratic and economic development and would improve our security as well.

Our own democracy took decades to develop. We can better advance U.S. national security and our interests in the region by initiating a more robust and sustained strategy of engagement. Let’s get started.

MORE: After Benghazi Consulate Attack, What’s Next for U.S. Relations with Libya and Egypt? 

10 comments
Gisco35
Gisco35

I'm sorry Keith, we need to do exactly as we are doing now.  As th leader of Egypt a muslim country President Morsi will earn gravitas from the west by being a responsible leader. 

That means not persecuting the innocent bound to his country by nationality because they may have different religious beliefs such as coptic christians.

In other words you can't claim having a democracy while running a theocracy.

It means you fomenting hatred toward us is not mutually satisfactory when our amends for any past misgivings has been to respect your absolute autonomy.

It means that simply because you are of a different region of the world and cultural background that we are not and do not comprehend what you are saying or what you are doing.  It means that beguiling the U.S. is not acceptable.

It means that if, you look at the Libyan government they are acting to fullfil just what was intended.  The government is not supporting militias not in line with government policies.  The government is attempting to erect a peaceful society.  Nor, is it fomenting terrorism.  It is actively seeking justice by apprehending and prosecuting those who would use the security of its borders to commit terrorist acts against the outside  world or those (U.S.) who would extend a hand in peace.

Therefore, Keith our President needs to continue to engage in the same diplomatic strategy.  Autonomy and self determination for all with expectations of responsible behavior in return.

TH007
TH007

If u love them so Much why dont You give them your money!! Screw those middle east. This article is a crap

George Babbitt
George Babbitt

"But now is not the time to cut U.S. aid to Libya and other Arab countries."

You're right, now is the time to cut U.S. aid to the 'State of Israel'. Solve more problems by an order of magnitude difference to the number of problems in would make.

Superdust
Superdust

so keep aid to countries that hate us, but cut aid to countries that dont? good to know mohamed! 

George Babbitt
George Babbitt

You know, it was not so long ago that the majority of Christians knew rightly and truly that they should have nothing to do with Jews. The Second Vatican Council was a sea-change on that front, not to mention the heresies of the Scofield/Darby dispensationalism movement that has perverted the stream of Christianity with made up throwback anti-Christ elements merely to appease the Jews.

George Babbitt
George Babbitt

Please don't try to tempt me by parading your secular Hollywood eye-candy out in front of me as if that would bring us together. Also, shunning does not require any of the extreme acts you listed, all it takes its telling them you will not have anything to do with them, like I am now with you, and then not having anything to do with them.

leonofjudah
leonofjudah

How does one have "nothing to do with Jews"? (by the way, does that include Scarlet Johanson, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder and Bar Refaeli? 'Cos that would be a real shame... Sasha Baron Cohen would be OK, I suppose. Michael Douglas and Paul Newman definitely not). Gas them? Imprison them in ghettos? Deport them to Israel? Just asking...

Solomon K Eye
Solomon K Eye

 Wow Kieth you seems talking to help, but telling the fuck Map of world problem! who was never there to help? Faithfully as Mohamed said it. except the Trinity. the road is clear later even 6ooyears.

http://www.islamproject.org/ed...

Solomon K Eye
Solomon K Eye

Wow Kieth you seems talking to help, but telling the fuck Map of world problem by by denying the trinity. who was never there to help? and refusing the light of SNEW. I sad hard lib!

 http://www.islamproject.org/ed...