On December 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazzi covered himself in paint thinner and struck a match. The sight of his burning body ignited citizens of the Arab world in protest against their leaders’ corruption. TIME Magazine named “the Protestor” the “Person of the Year” in 2011.
The CNN GOP National Security Debate back in November clearly revealed that Ron Paul, too, is a “protestor” in his own right. While political analysts have claimed that Ron Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy has alienated him from potential supporters, Ron Paul has reminded the voters of New Hampshire and South Carolina that he has more than double the support of all the other Republican candidates combined from voters in the military. Ron Paul’s anti-defense spending agenda is not his fatal flaw; but his anti-foreign aid stance is.
Throughout the Arab Spring, the United States stood still as Arab protestors demanded their dignity. Sadly, the United States operates under the “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” logic. Thus, even though these Arab dictators were undemocratic, they were friendly to the U.S. When Arabs ridded the region of several of its most ruthless leaders, neither the citizen protestors nor the U.S. had a definite answer as to who would replace them, as these revolutions were a surprise.
Here is where Ron Paul’s non-interventionist approach is not the best strategy for the U.S. in 2012. As Arab citizens seek to establish new governments this year, the U.S. needs to establish diplomatic ties with these newly forming nations and assist, without the use of weapons or force, in the democratic transition.
Nearly all of U.S. foreign assistance money is spent on establishing civil societies — NGOs, interest groups, non-profit organizations, etc.— in newly forming democracies that will challenge the developing political systems. Now is the right time for the U.S. to issue foreign assistance to these Arab countries to ensure the new governments are held accountable for their actions. Ron Paul has said he will not give any of these nations money in fear that extremists will rise to power. Ron Paul personally believes that if the U.S. plays by the “mind your own business” game, anti-U.S. sentiment in the region will plummet.
But that’s not entirely true. Arab citizens are beginning to elect new governments that are not particularly friendly to the U.S. because America gave millions of dollars to the repressive, ruthless dictators they forced out of power. They are afraid that any government that the U.S. gives money to will suppress their own will. Now is the time for the U.S. to show its support for the Arab people. Ron Paul’s logic is wrong; if the U.S. does nothing, Arab citizens will continue to associate the U.S. with the oppressive governments of the past. By contrast, if the U.S. reaches out to these countries with foreign assistance money, we can demonstrate our support for the people.
Of course, the U.S. should not manipulate who governs or stipulate how new governments are structured — as in Iraq — but rather, provide the assistance needed to guarantee that their governments will, in fact, reflect the will of their people. Funding a civil society can guarantee that. Bolstering NGOs like the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA) and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights would help keep the Egyptian government in check. The AWSA was disbanded by the Egyptian government in the early 1990s, so now would be the perfect time for the U.S. to assist the organization to re-establish itself and find grassroots support.
Michele Dunne, an editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, verbalized these ideas precisely when she wrote, “The U.S. needs to show that it has the courage of its convictions. It must be willing to put up with the inconvenient vicissitudes of democracy in the Arab world, just as it does in Israel or Turkey. … This would be a more complex scene, to be sure, but one that offered a better life for peoples of the region and a more healthy and transparent environment in which to promote U.S. interests.”
Diplomatic relations with these new governments will only come when the U.S. proves three things: that it supports the will and interests of the region’s people; that it only supports a government which reflects the will and interests of its people; and that it genuinely wants to improve the lives of the Arab people. If those channels of respect are opened, the U.S. will likely find a new channel of respect coming back the other way.
Photo Credit: Denis Bocquet