There used to be a fundamental contrast between those who solely advocate the ideals of freedom and democracy in the Middle East by means of US and western intervention, and those who account for realities and contingencies on the ground. This contrast/rift is getting fuzzy with president Obama’s second year in office.
Advocating abstract ideals in general relieves the activists/policy maker initially from attending to questions about specifics. For example: Dictators are evil, Freedom and Democracy must prevail. Would anyone disagree? Certainly not. With an element of nobility and a handful of ethical shimmer, this call for light to the dark quarters of the world has a wide audience and willing supporters. Is your intended target ready for prime time enlightenment? That becomes an unnecessary question since the act of “voting” is documented by inked thumbs, or overworked donkeys traveling uncharted roots carrying ballot boxes. White man saved brown man, yet again.
Furthermore, the idealist abstraction becomes a nice broad umbrella that can shade all sorts of national and security objectives while eliminating a tyrant. (No comment on Afghanistan, except for: al-Qaida is and was our target why on earth did we end up fighting the Taliban and their extended families, friends and emerging Taliban tribal allies all over Afghanistan and Pakistan? I have faith in Iraqis being able to work the democratic system to the benefit of Iraq).
Back to the contrast/rift. On the other side are equally committed supporters of Democracy and Freedom in the Middle East but who argue that the advancement of civil society should be propelled from within. There are numerous indigenous routes for reform: elite negotiation, growing civil society..etc. . There is no instant gratification and the process might take decades. Democratization will not live up to its true colors unless it is woven, articulated and sustained from within. Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, imperfect as they are to us in the western hemisphere, are striving towards accommodating their respective growing civil society; and adjusting to their respective norms. The problem with imposed “western freedom and democracy agendas" is that they create a regional top-down backlash which in turn defeats the efforts of democracy activists and civil society in the region
The domestic pressure on President Obama, Health care initiative/bill and struggling economy, will squeeze him into a corner on the Foreign Policy front, precisely into the comforts of abstractions and broad “easy on the ear” agendas. Nothing is more soothing then talking about freedom and democracy in the Middle East, even the “War on Terror” is making a comeback, it soothes ears, boiling think tanks, agitated political opponents.. the list goes on. The implication of resorting to such a strategy is precisely the fuzziness it creates. So are we, when it comes to the Middle East, going to sing the tunes of the “New Middle East” and Creative Chaos again? Who knows. The question becomes is president Obama trying to decorate a pragmatist approach to foreign policy with idealist sound bites to appease domestic political opponents? Or is his Foreign Policy experiencing a fundamental shift at the core?