1. Restore U.S. credibility by disconnecting democracy and human rights promotion from U.S. security goals and reforming our own human rights and civil liberties practices. The Obama administration has already taken big step in this direction by directing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp by next January.
2. Use diplomacy to promote national consensus in key countries and address conflicts in the region. Internal conflicts in countries throughout the region – form Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories to Iraq and Yemen — are driven by the lack of a national political consensus on basic structures of governance. Moreover, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict will create an environment in the region more conducive to democratic reform.
3. Integrate U.S. approaches to supporting democracy and governance reform in the region. All U.S. government assistance – from USAID to the State Department to military aid — should be coordinated to better encourage better governance by recipients of American funding and assistance.
4. Increase positive incentives for democratic reform. The model of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provided incentives to promote economic development and improved governance, is one the new administration can encourage reforms.
5. Diversify funding for democracy promotion in the region. Private philanthropy, endowments, partnerships and the like in the Middle East should be encouraged to take on political reform, building a stronger organic base for democracy and human rights.
6. Recognize the political power of Islamist forces. Like it or not, Islamist groups are potent political forces in many countries in the Middle East. Reform efforts that ignore them are at best incomplete, and the United States needs to take non-violent religious-political movements into account.
These are all excellent points. One thing I would add that I think has a tendency to go missing in these discussions is that the essential background for effective and sustainable democracy promotion is a relatively benign international climate. The end of the Cold War wound up being a boon to democracy not just because several Soviet-dominated countries in Central and Eastern Europe turned into democracies. It also helped spread democracy in Asia and Latin America, too, primarily because the United States no longer felt the need to support “our bastards” regimes and could, instead, make it clear that close relations with the U.S. depended on a proper respect for basic human and political rights. Great power conflict, by contrast, merely ensure than any actual or would-be dictator or revolutionary can always count on the support of one or the other external players.
That’s something to keep in mind in general as we try to stay true to our values while negotiating a transition to a more multipolar world. An emphasis on democracy and human rights implies some level of tension with the government of China. But at the same time, maintaining a basically friendly relationship with China is actually crucial to fostering an environment in which democracy and respect for human rights can blossom. That’s a difficult line to walk, but it’s important. And the general idea has application to the specific region. Working on the Israeli-Arab conflict or on trying to work toward an improved relationship with Iran can be seen as contrasting goals with democracy promotion. But at the same time, lowering international tensions in the Middle East would in many ways make it easier to move forward on democracy.