The United States is increasingly uninterested in the Middle East as the region becomes polarized and paralyzed by old and new forces. Contrasted binary labels such as rulers and Islamists, war and terrorism, secularism and sectarianism, while seem self-evident, they nonetheless conceal a far more complicated and dangerous reality, one that requires an alternative approach to Western interventionism or negligent pragmatism.
If it all looks chaotic and senseless from Washington and you think it's dizzying to watch the region unravel, try living in Egypt or dying in Syria. Apathy towards this suffering is immoral and politically short-sighted.
The record shows that rulers can be terribly violent, Islamist groups largely peaceful, seculars deeply religious, liberals undemocratic and wildly sectarian, and generals unabashedly dictatorial. It has also demonstrated that the opposites are no less true. Labels are meaningless in the modern Middle East.
This is why the approach of the Obama administration cannot be based on knee-jerk reactions to labels. It must ask some fundamental questions like: Is Assad fighting or fermenting terrorism? Is General Sisi a reformer or a deformer of the democratic process? Is Iran an "oasis of stability" or an exporter of instability?
Logic of oppression
Behind the terrible violence lies a cynical calculus: punish the people yearning for freedom and dignity and force them to reconsider whether revolting against tyranny is indeed the wise thing to do. From Qaddafi's attempt to crush his detractors in Libya, to the on-going massacre in Syria, through the military coup in Egypt, counter-revolution is in full gear, fighting tooth and nail to regain and maintain power.
Arab dictators have also tried to link ALL Islamists to extremism, violence or ultimately, al-Qaeda. Buying into that is naive, bordering on reckless. When Islamist groups, even the conservatives and ultra-conservatives, in the spirit of the new era, did join in the democratic process the "old regimes" attempted to sabotage their efforts when the results weren't to their liking as was the case in Egypt.
While Islamist groups have demonstrated a limited understanding of democratic values when in power in Egypt, such shortcomings do not compare with the destabilizing efforts of military dictatorship. Ousting and then outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood under the pretext of labeling it a terrorist organization makes it impossible to arrive at a reconciliation or compromise with the group and its supporters -- that make up no less than a quarter of the population -- in order to avoid a descent into total chaos.
American officials might have expressed their regrets and warned against reversing the Egyptian democratic process and alienating a major segment of the population, but the administration fell short on taking meaningful steps to deter the generals from establishing a de facto military rule.
Calculus of war
In Syria, the Assad regime has fought back against the predominantly peaceful revolution, justifying the use of excessive force with the claim that they're fighting extremism. It terrorized an entire population under the pretext of combating 'terrorism.' Intentionally creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, the regime paved the way for "violent jihadis" to take root and become active amid the death and destruction.
The Syrian regime has shown there is no limit to how far such dictatorships will go to maintain or to regain power. Even manufacturing terrorists to convince the West of its utility in "providing/maintaining stability" in a volatile but strategic region.
Now that the genie is out of the bottle, pandering to violent dictators and their allies promises more instability and violence. The regimes' merciless crackdown will only breed more extremism. Never since their heyday in Afghanistan, has al Qaeda and other violent jihadists been as potent as they are today in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq.
Alas, some in Washington seem to buy into to the Russian argument that the Syrian regime is needed for containing al Qaeda and combating terrorism. Or that it's the better out of bad options.
A mounting number of Western pundits from the left and the right are advocating U.S. cooperation with the (Shia) leadership in Iran and Iraq in the war against (Sunni) terrorism. This will prove counterproductive and will no doubt lead to region-wide sectarian conflict.
Indeed Washington must look to where leaders and movements stand on the democratic ideals invoked on the streets and public squares of the Arab world three years ago; liberty, prosperity and social justice.
In the absence of developed democracies or democratic majorities, supporting democratic processes is the only way to nurture both. Likewise, a region-wide push for restorative justice and inclusive democracy is the most effective antidote against violent extremists in the Arab world.