Accountability Beyond Rhetoric

02/23/2011 11:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent uprisings in the Arab world, including some regime changes, call for a meaningful reassessment of current policy. One would expect the usual demands for democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and regularly scheduled elections as well as a heightened commitment to the people of the region, that their rights and aspirations will be reflected in this new vision. Furthermore, it would not be surprising if all these were packaged as part of an initiative to address the Palestine/Israel conflict and a commitment to the establishment of a state of Palestine.

The momentous events have exposed a disturbing dearth of American influence in the region, a fact which was highlighted by President Obama's inability to convince the Palestinian President to withdraw the Security Council Resolution in exchange for terms that might, at other times, have looked reasonable. Clearly, there is greater political advantage for Arab leaders in "standing up" to the United States rather than aligning with it. While the Palestinian issue is one reason for this reality, there are others.

The common theme which remains constant among the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and the demonstrations in other Arab countries is neither ideology, religion, foreign policy, nor simple economic deprivation. Instead, that unifying thread is poor governance and its attendant oppression and corruption flagrantly practiced by the leaders and their families and cohorts. For decades average citizens have been deprived of dignity and access to the rule of law while the kleptocratic dictators and their inner circle remained above the law. The scope of their corruption ranges from huge commissions on contracts to the more damaging naked form in which the regular citizen is dispossessed, humiliated and abused to such a degree that self-immolation becomes a viable option as a means of expression.

These leaders, their wives, and their sons established a claim on the present and future ownership of their countries and resources. What we have witnessed is not a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolt. These have been uprisings against unjust governments which have oppressed their people with impunity. Television and social media have indeed facilitated the organization and the spread of information, but they did not ignite the human will to revolt. Injustice and indignity did that.

In pursuit of stability, the United States and the West, have tolerated, if not actively supported, tyrants and crooks. Young people of the Middle East have spoken, with dignity and in peace, as they shed their blood to earn freedom for themselves and their countries. They are seeking a future of stability and democracy and are prepared to pay for it. They want accountability and expect transparency; we should listen and must help.

The promise for help and expressions of support from the Administration are insufficient. The time has come for words backed by deeds. Because the people of these incipient democracies have rushed into their streets to demand freedom, now is the time to secure it by providing real accountability and transparency. The system of American, Western and international laws which has been mobilized to fight terrorism globally must be directed against officials who kill, or order the murder of, civilians. These laws must be invoked against corrupt individuals who steal their people's resources, rather than used to create safe havens for the loot in Western financial institutions and investments. The complicity must stop. Western global resources are now threatened by the corruption western governments have ignored. This corruption has driven societies, and not just individuals, to radicalization. The mullahs and radical ideologues have a convenient argument at their disposal to incite people whose rights and dignity have been trampled.

U.S. and international legal, economic and financial institutions, must mobilize to combat corruption if we are to gain the trust and support of the people who suffer at the hands of their thieving tyrants. The resulting economic benefit and enhanced security for us and also for the whole world will be immeasurable. Yes, it is absolutely our business to demand accountability. Radicalized and disenfranchised people and societies pose a threat to our national security interest. The legal systems, here and abroad, have to support the rights of individuals under the watch of serious, probing and sustained media attention in order to widen the circle of rights for other citizens. The recklessness and impunity which allow tyrants not just to murder and scare their own people but to threaten the countries of Europe with economic punishment or a flood of refugees if any Western nation demands accountability must be faced with the gravity they deserve. Standing by the Arab people in their quest for freedom will help dispel the prevailing narrative that we partner with the regimes of oppression. The departure of Mubarak and Ben Ali are steps in the right direction. A genuine commitment to upholding accountability would open the doors to democracy and stability.

Corruption is a threat to national security and not just a financial crime. We should not be the world's policeman, nor should we be the dictator's patron.

Ziad Asali MD is the president of the American Task Force on Palestine.

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