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Broadening U.S. Engagement With the Middle East

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In the wake of recent violence, including the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, some have called for the United States to decrease its diplomatic engagement with the Middle East. With perceptions of America in the region already greatly damaged by a legacy of narrow relationships with autocratic governments, such a move would be a grave mistake with dire consequences for U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. Ambassador Stevens was among the strongest advocates of building relationships with the Arab public, and it would be tragically ironic to see his death lead to an abandonment of this critical task.

Now is the time for the United States to embrace the historic changes in the region by taking action to support democratic transitions and putting pressure on repressive governments to change. A diplomatic retreat or a cutoff in foreign assistance at this time could do long-term damage to American strategic interests and to democratic transitions currently under way. The next American president should seize the opportunity of this pivotal moment and reimagine American policy toward the Middle East and North Africa.

For decades, U.S. policy in the Arab world has relied primarily on close relationships with autocratic governments. Because these unelected governments were not accountable to their citizenry, the United States paid little attention to its relationship with the general population. The flaws in this approach were quickly exposed in 2011, with the eruption of popular uprisings across the region. As longtime allies were overthrown, the United States struggled to navigate the newly dynamic political scene, in large part because it lacked meaningful ties with a variety of suddenly important actors. Since then, there have been occasional signs that the U.S. administration recognizes the need to engage more broadly with Arab publics, but the actual degree of such engagement so far has been rather limited.

To be sure, the administration has dramatically increased its lines of communication with one set of actors in the region -- Islamist political parties. For example, the U.S. government has moved quickly to engage groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, both of which the United States had essentially refused to work with prior to 2011. To some in Washington, this move to establish relationships with previously off-limits groups demonstrates flexibility in adapting to changing political realities. To many observers across the Arab world, however, the United States appears to be clinging to its old approach of narrowly focusing on those in power, whoever they may be.

On her trip to Egypt in July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with President Mohamed Morsi, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, as well as representatives of women's organizations and prominent members of Egypt's Christian minority. Conspicuously absent, however, were any consultations with political actors outside the government. Meeting with leading opposition figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei or Hamdeen Sabbahi, who have considerable bases of support, would have demonstrated a commitment to engaging with Egyptians across the political spectrum and helped to dispel widespread Egyptian suspicions that the United States is only interested in relationships with the Brotherhood and the military.

The political climates in Libya and Tunisia are at least as complex as that in Egypt. In both countries, sudden political freedom following decades of total repression has resulted in a highly fragmented political sphere, in which dozens of new parties competed and won seats in historic elections. Within the next year, all three countries intend to hold new elections, which could easily have dramatically different outcomes from the first.

In this varied and rapidly changing political landscape, any excessive U.S. focus on forging relations with the parties currently holding power risks ignoring or even alienating potential future leaders. Instead, the United States must seriously reach out across the political spectrum to build a broad set of relationships well before any transfers of power. As these transitioning countries become more democratic, such power transfers will happen regularly, intensifying the need to develop ties as quickly as possible.

Such engagement must also extend beyond political parties and elites to include a wide array of civil society actors: democracy and human rights organizations, development organizations, public charities, labor unions, trade and professional associations, and local community leaders. Given their expertise in their respective fields, these groups can help the United States understand social forces and navigate difficult situations, especially during transitional periods.

More specifically, to effectively broaden its engagement with the Middle East, the next U.S. administration should:

· Demonstrate a commitment to interacting with all major political parties in the Arab world, not only those that have won elections. This should include frequent private discussions as well as public meetings to counter the widespread perception that the United States favors specific parties.

· Increase direct contact with a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations. This should go beyond simple meetings and also include raising the concerns of civil society leaders, marginalized groups, and activists with the local governments; defending the rights of such organizations; and pressing for a more open environment for civil society.

· Support and facilitate increased interaction between Arab organizations -- such as labor unions, professional associations, student groups, and research institutions -- and their American counterparts, including through expanded exchange programs and partnerships.

· Dramatically increase efforts to reach citizens and organizations beyond the elites in capital cities and major urban centers. This should include the establishment of additional U.S. consulates and diplomatic missions as well as more frequent travel by government officials to areas with no embassies or consulates nearby.

This is not to suggest that broadening engagement with the region is an easy task. Anti-American sentiment runs high in many currents of Middle Eastern politics. Decades of U.S. support for repressive regimes have fueled deep suspicion of U.S. motives. Some local actors have refused to work with the United States, and a number will continue to do so. Nonetheless, the United States can neither support democratic transitions nor effectively pursue national security interests unless it builds relationships with much broader segments of Middle Eastern societies, and doing so should be a top priority of the next administration.

This blog is part of the series "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series will feature renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.