The U.S. is still recovering from a Bush presidency in the eyes of the world. Four years after he left office, four years after his predecessor took the oath, on the streets of Cairo, you can still hear denunciations of Bush.
Barack Obama was hailed as offering a new vision and new hope for the Middle East when he took office four years ago, and while still comparatively well received compared to Bush, his popularity is waning, particularly amongst the increasingly influential youth. The next president, be it a continuation of Obama's tenure or Mitt Romney, will find himself battling two fronts: the wishes of his constituency and global interests.
America’s image was in need of drastic repair after the invasion of Iraq. Obama’s speech in front of Cairo’s youth in 2009 left many optimistic. His opportunity to prove himself the leader presented itself just two years later when protests erupted in Tunis calling for a change of order. Within weeks these protests had spread to Cairo, where slow reactions from the White House demanding Mubarak’s resignation left many in the region’s most populous country disappointed. The tear gas supplies that continued to enter the country knowing that the military was using it against its people in an effort to suppress them outraged Egyptians and Americans alike, with countless petitions being sent around demanding an immediate cessation of shipments.
In Syria, the continued bloodshed and failure to stop the slaughter has instilled disillusionment. The hallow calls for Bashar al-Assad ("lion" in Arabic) to step down are nothing more than empty words. The faltering relationship with China and Russia has been exemplified over the UN’s failure to do more than ineffective resolutions.
Fears of a nuclear Iran fill American newspapers, while Romney decries an easing friendship with Israel. Palestinian statehood continues to be sidelined. Fears of the growing influence of Islamist parties in the region terrify Americans.
It is undeniable that the Middle East plays an important role in U.S. foreign policy, be it oil dependence, military bases, foreign aid, etc. As such, maintaining a strong relationship with not only the region's governments, but also the people, are paramount to fulfilling U.S. interests. This tenuous relationship may be becoming even more precarious. Recent polling data indicated that 54% of Americans would prefer a stable Middle East to a more democratic one.
This is the obstacle of tonight’s debate. How to balance U.S. interests, the desires of the American people and the wishes of the people of the Middle East (and the rest of the world) to ensure that all people are satisfied? A return to dictatorial regimes in the name of stability (a la Mubarak) will only serve to further sever American interests. Continued disengagement in Syria will further alienate potential allies as the regional power dynamics shift, and create more opportunities for terrorist pockets to develop.
While the American people may wish for stability over democracy, this is the worst thing for American interests. The goal of tonight’s debate should be to explain that transformation from the oppressive regional regimes is better for everyone in the long run.If the U.S. can actively engage in supporting this, and fostering the transition and upholding the beliefs that democracy is best, even if it may not be our vision for the country, than it will go a long way in repairing America's currently tarnished image around the world.