As political unrest rolls across North Africa and the Middle East, two things have become painfully clear. First, the US foreign policy approach to this region has for too long focused on short-term security instead of long-term development, and second, that our support for friendly, yet wholly undemocratic governments has undermined the stability of our diplomatic position vis-à-vis the Muslim world.
Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen and Egypt can all be described by the same political and economic formula. In all four nations, long-serving, stable leaders head up undemocratic political systems. The past decade has seen the populations in these countries grow ever younger, as economic opportunities remain scarce and channels through which to express political will remain even scarcer. Add to this the economic strains of the global recession and the connective tools of news and social media, and the political/cultural pressure cooker becomes readily apparent.
US foreign policy towards the Middle East has generally viewed security as its ultimate goal. All other concerns, economics, culture and changing demographics became largely secondary as long as extremist elements could be controlled or at least kept from targeting American interests. Our emphasis on short-term security has allowed the US to justify alliances with nations led by the likes of 32-year President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Egypt's leader of almost 30 years, Hosni Mubarak. Diplomatic relations that trade Arab goodwill and relative stability in return for US aid, legitimacy and support have persisted long enough for the relevant stakeholders to take them almost for granted.
The US emphasis on short-term security has, however, failed to take into account shifting demographics and political attitudes in the Islamic world. Missing from the discussion over US actions against Al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2010, for example, was the fact that no matter how hard the US and Yemeni government cracked down, the nation's position as poor and young will make it an ideal breeding ground for extremists until these problems can be addressed. In a less dangerous but equally important example, the population of Egypt, with a median age of 24, reflects a population trend across the Islamic world of both increasing size and decreasing age. The Internet and the rise of news networks like Al Jazeera has made this population both better informed and better connected than ever before. Given these facts, the recent trends towards open discontent with governments and calls for greater democracy across North Africa and the Middle East are unsurprising.
The true failure thus far has been the inability of the US foreign policy establishment to realize the unsustainable nature of alliances with undemocratic leaders in demographically and ideologically shifting countries. If at one time President Mubarak did in fact represent average Egyptians, the events of the past few days have made it clear that for many this is no longer the case. Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh in Yemen and, until recently, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia represent a loosing demographic and loosing ideology in their respective nations and across the Islamic world.
If it isn't already, the United States will soon be faced with a choice between supporting a push towards sustainable Islamic democracy or relying on its current, antiquated set of relationships in the Islamic world. While no one can ensure than a democratically elected government will be friendly towards or willing to work with the US, shifting our support away from unpopular, autocratic leaders can only help. Until Americans are willing to view security in the Middle East as a product of economic development, demographic stability and political freedom, our long-term goals will remain unattainable.