If the United States really wants to see human rights and democracy take root and flourish in the Arab region there is at least one thing it can do to advance that objective: ensure that Tunisia's transition to democracy succeeds.
President Moncef Marzouki of Tunisia is in Washington for the African Leaders Summit and he has come with a clear message: Tunisia faces a struggle to advance its own democracy, to demonstrate that an Arab state can become a democracy, and to protect democratic values that are being challenged around the world. Marzouki expects the United States to be Tunisia's ally in this vital struggle, but he is not satisfied with the level of support he has received to date.
Tunisia stands alone in carrying forward the universal values of dignity, human rights, and freedom that brought millions of people to the streets of Arab cities in the early months of 2011 to protest against their corrupt, oppressive authoritarian rulers. Arab authoritarianism is a sturdy plant, and while it may have lost a few dictatorships along the way, it has come back with a vengeance. Where it has been unable to reconstitute itself, it has left burgeoning chaos in its wake - in Syria,Iraq, and Libya, for example - thus presenting the United States with a choice to make. Will it stand for the universal values of human rights and democracy that are supported by the people of the region, or will it trade in its principles and values to support warmed over authoritarianism in a futile quest for stability, thereby repeating the mistakes of the past? The answer should be self-evident, but shockingly that is not the way U.S. policy appears to be going.
A paralyzing mixture of inertia and a desire to withdraw from a troubled part of the world has left U.S. policy towards the Arab world with a familiar look, as if the upheavals of the last three years, let alone the many wars and crises of the last sixty, never happened. Who are the "moderates" we can depend on, and avoid asking too many questions about their human rights practices? Step forward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, take a bow President Sisi.
Tunisia offers U.S. policy towards the Arab world a much needed alternative to this discredited fare. The "Tunisian model" as described by President Marzouki, is inclusive. It engages non-violent Islamists willing to play by the rules of pluralistic democratic politics in the political process. It offers a way out of the cycle of Islamist vs. secularist polarization and perpetual conflict that countries like Algeria have experienced, and which Egypt could fall into.
President Marzouki has some clear requests from the United States government to help Tunisia overcome the crises it is struggling with. On the economic front, Tunisia is looking for expanded help from the United States in the form of more loan guarantees, and support for more flexibility from the IMF.
On the security front, Marzouki is even more explicit. Tunisia is facing security threats from Libya, Mali, and from returning militant extremists battle-hardened in conflicts in Algeria and now Syria and Iraq. He warns that Tunisia has become a target of the militant extremists because they do not want the democratic Tunisian model to succeed. He characterizes the next few months as a time of particular vulnerability as Tunisia prepares for scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections that will further advance Tunisia's transition. He also notes that Tunisia's military was ill-prepared to meet these challenges, having been deliberately kept weak under the long years of the Ben-Ali dictatorship. He stressed the urgent need for training and equipment from the United States. He said that the Tunisian military requires twelve Black Hawk helicopters to give its military an edge in confronting experienced militant extremists.
Cursory investigations show the unit cost of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to be around $17.77 million, throw in some necessary training and maintenance and some additional equipment like night-vision capability, which the president is also asking for, and the total cost for twelve Black Hawks for the Tunisian military may be around $250 million. This is more money than Tunisia has to spend on military equipment, but compared to the trillions expended by the U.S. government in military operations against terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in recent years, it is not such a large sum.
The United States has an interest in seeing the Tunisian model succeed. A region of peaceful, inclusive, democratic governments would make for a very different future for U.S. relations with the Arab world. Tunisia's progress is a first step in that direction. Investing in Tunisia's success would be a small down payment that the U.S. government could make to turn the lofty rhetoric of President Obama in his speech in Cairo in 2009, or President Bush in his second inaugural address in 2005, into practical assistance that can turn grand visions into reality.