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Remarks by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH)

December 8, 2011

On September 17, 2007, then-Candidate Barack Obama, in a speech on Wall Street, observed of the financial crisis that “Most everyone knew that some of these deals were just too good to be true, but all that money flowing in made it tempting to look the other way and ignore the unscrupulous practice of some bad actors. And yet, time and again we were warned this could happen.”  He might as well have been talking about U.S. policy in the Middle East. For decades, U.S. policy toward the Arab world, much like the housing bubble-fueled economic growth, has been built on a false foundation of stability. Concealed under a thin veneer of stability, Arab autocracies for decades have allowed the social and political foundations of their countries to fester and rot. By employing the tools of repression, Middle Eastern autocrats silenced all opposition and perpetuated the image of an acquiescent, even if angry, population. The institutionalization of static power structures propped up the regimes and ensured that their top priority was always met: regime survival.

And so the Middle East muddled on. Indeed, the remarkable durability of the Arab autocracies typified those who espoused the view that, as loathsome as these regimes were, they were a permanent fixture on the landscape of the region and tension-inducing issues like human rights and democracy must be relegated to other more pressing issues. For despite all the reasons why revolution could be predicted, this scenario did not come to pass; the stale and brittle power structures endured largely unchallenged. It was on this false foundation that many of the structures of American hegemony in the Middle East were built.

But the center could not hold forever. Like the inevitable bursting of the housing bubble, it was only a matter of time until the citizens of the region stood up and together said “enough.” And although each country has its own distinctive history and its own set of unique circumstances, the current unrest is, at its core, about rewriting the social contract throughout the Arab world. If we envision stability as the result of an equilibrium between the government and the governed—the degree to which any government meets the demands of its people—then in the Middle East, the market has not been clearing for a very long time. The gap between the legitimate aspirations of the people and the political freedoms afforded by the regimes has been growing for decades. As a result, the stability we’ve witnessed has been a false stability, built on a faulty foundation of repression rather than the consent of the governed.

In retrospect, it is safe to say that there are many learning opportunities to be had. It is particularly thought provoking to consider the reforms President Obama called for in his Cairo speech. Many of the measures laid out in the speech resonated with citizens throughout the region. Unfortunately many of those measures were never implemented. What if over the past two years we had more effectively lobbied our allies in the region—many of whom are large aid recipients—to implement political reforms?  Could we have had liberalization without the violence and bloodshed that we see now?  No one can answer these questions, but they highlight one undeniable truth: The Arab Spring has made clear that no country, region, or people are immune to the desire for freedom.

These are hardly new ideas. Nearly 6 year ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood in front of an audience at the American University of Cairo and declared that “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”  Similarly, over 7 years ago before an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush stated that “As changes come to the Middle Eastern region, those with power should ask themselves: Will they be remembered for resisting reform, or for leading it?”  These words are perhaps more fitting today than at any other time in recent history. Although President Bush was speaking about regional leaders, it is my firm belief that U.S. policymakers should ask themselves the same question.

So where does this leave us today?  Although we all may wish it were the case, the cause of freedom does not often march steadily forward in a straight line and we cannot expect it to do so in the Middle East. There will be ups and downs, progression and regression.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Egypt where Egyptian leaders and citizens alike are experiencing the benefits and frustrations that democracy brings. As they navigate these uncharted waters, it is incumbent on the U.S. to remain a steady ally to all those who wish to see genuine democracy rise from the ash heap of authoritarianism. Although it is the right of the people of the Middle East ultimately to self-determine their own fate, we should be ready to assist them in their effort and work to ensure that their countries are not hijacked by extremists who seek to use the institutions of democracy to rise to power only to abolish that very system. Elections are a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy and, as countries like Egypt build its structures of government, we must focus on helping Egyptians establish key institutions of liberal government: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, equal rights for religious and ethnic minorities as well as for women, and a free press. We cannot deny that the Muslim Brotherhood has said very troubling things and we therefore have legitimate grounds to view them with concern. That said, decisions about assistance to Egypt must ultimately be shaped by the choices and policies made by whatever Egyptian government that the Egyptian people choose to elect. We have an interest in strongly supporting a democratic government that respects the rights of its citizens and rule of law, fosters greater economic opportunity, and observes international obligations.  We would obviously react very differently to any government that does not respect the institutions of free government, discriminates against or represses its citizens, or which pursues policies which are destabilizing in the region.

Concern about how regional governments treat their respective populations cannot just be limited to Egypt, but must characterize our larger policy toward the region. It is increasingly clear, however, that the Obama Administration’s policy has not adapted as it must. In no place is this clearer than in its Iran policy. Just over two years ago, the regime in Tehran perpetrated one of the most blatant incidents of electoral fraud in recent history. This sparked widespread pro-democracy protests and the people of Iran took to the streets by the thousands to demand that their most basic rights be respected. What followed made very clear that this regime is not interested in the rights or wellbeing of its citizens. The world watched as the Iranian regime beat, tortured, raped, and murdered its way through these protests.

My concern lies not so much with what the Administration has done as with what it has not done. Its human rights policies toward Iran have been both feeble and late. Rather than seizing the historic opportunity presented to it, the Administration dithered by slowly inching towards challenging the legitimacy of this regime in any meaningful way. That the Administration continues to eschew calling for a transition to a real democratic government in Iran is evidence of one of two possibilities: Either it still believes that a grand bargain on the illicit nuclear program is possible or it is concerned that to do so will create a situation in which it must then ensure that the regime actually falls. The fine line that the Administration is walking by condemning but not seriously challenging puts the U.S. in an untenable position and, from the outside, we appear to be hedging rather than leading. And although the Administration may think that to do so puts itself in a strategically advantageous position, it seriously underestimates the impact its actions—or lack thereof—have on actual outcomes.

Indeed, the perception that calling for a democratic transition requires U.S. military operations to forcibly depose those in power is an excuse to avoid making a more permanent break with the regime in Tehran. Words, like many things, have a currency, and that currency is action. To highlight human rights abuses and then sanction fewer than a dozen individuals for abuses perpetrated against Iranians is unacceptable. And to vacillate between condemning this regime and then later offering it a lifeline pits us against the people of that country.

The Administration must realize that making no decision is in fact a decision in and of itself. Epithets like “leading from behind” would not be so disturbing if they were not substantiated by a clear lack of action and strategic vision. The result is that foreign policy becomes a slave to each individual development on the ground and consequently the U.S. appears indecisive and noncommittal. In the context of foreign policy, inaction is policy and instead of leading the way to a more prosperous future for the peoples of the Middle East, the Administration looks as if it is waiting to see who ends up on top before picking a side. Instead of viewing this as an unprecedented opportunity to help spread democracy and freedom to parts of the world that do not currently know it, the Administration gives the impression that the protests are more of an inconvenience; that they are getting in the way of grand plans to extend outstretched hands in pursuit of unclenched fists.

The regional shifts happening right now in the Middle East place the United States and our allies at a precipice in history. The entire strategic framework that the United States’ regional posture has been based on for decades is rapidly transforming and the precise new composition of the region remains uncertain. We now have the historic opportunity to help this troubled region progress, and, in doing so, advance our own interests; but I fear we are squandering it. The connection between freedom and stability is undeniable and supporting the legitimate aspirations of all peoples is not just good public relations; it is good policy. Democratic governance sits at the nexus of our long-term strategic national interests and the values that define us; it is an opportunity for America to do well by doing good.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), a fifteen year veteran of the House of Representatives, serves Ohio’s first district. Rep. Chabot is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and in 2011 was named the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Congressman Chabot has been a leader in efforts combat efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel at the United Nations. Rep. Chabot is sponsoring legislation to leverage U.S. contributions to the United Nations to persuade international bodies to refuse to accept the membership of an independent Palestinian state outside of a negotiated peace process.