This post is excerpted from “The Seven Pillars of the Arab Future.” The full version is available at Democracy, and is reprinted here with permission.

The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. This post discusses the last of those seven pillars: Conditional Engagement from the U.S. Previously I’ve discussed the first four pillars, Economic Growth and Equality, EducationSecurity-Sector Reform, Transitional Justice, Decentralization and Regional Norms, Pluralism and provided an an introduction to the series, which offers an overview of the Arab uprising and its recent aftermath, and provides a high-level sketch of the seven pillars.

Lessons for U.S. Policy: Conditional Engagement

As the old colonial-era powers faded from the Arab world, America’s role in the region gradually but steadily increased throughout the second half of the twentieth century. U.S. strategy was driven by the region’s abundant natural resources, a commitment to Israel, and the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. With the collapse of communism and the rise of Islamist militancy, recent decades have seen an additional focus on terrorism that has further entangled the United States in the geopolitics of the Middle East, often in disastrous ways. The challenge now for the United States is to adopt a more balanced posture in keeping with its national interests while remaining engaged with a transforming and still-volatile region.

A first step is to properly assess U.S. interests and threats in the region, which are often exaggerated. Protecting the free flow of oil, which is not currently threatened, does not require an imperial footprint or a sprawling U.S.-underwritten regional security architecture. The outdated Carter Doctrine—the 1980 declaration that the free flow of oil from the region was of vital importance to U.S. economic and national-security interests—should be updated to more realistically reflect both interests and strategy. The United States should also be clear that Israel is no longer a besieged state fighting for its existence but the region’s unparalleled military power facing no serious threat from Arab armies. Lastly, the United States should assess accurately the threats it faces from the region. It has nothing remotely resembling a peer competitor, including Iran, a country with limited expeditionary military capacity. The terrorist threat, while persistent, is not existential and cannot serve as the unifying link of American grand strategy.

In light of this reality, the United States should seek to trim its military footprint, thereby limiting its exposure to the repressive actions of nominal allies and aligning its expenditures with actual interests. This is not to say that the United States should liquidate its positions and abandon its allies in the region. In fact, predictions of American decline in the Arab world are often rooted in a misconception of the historical role of the United States. In his description of Arab politics in the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Malcolm Kerr, a leading American Arabist of the day, observed, “From 1959 onwards, apart from one or two peripheral exceptions, the crucial decisions governing Arab affairs lay in Arab hands.” The United States remains the most prominent external actor in the Middle East, but it has rarely dictated political outcomes—nor will it now. Accepting these limitations is an appropriate starting point to constructing more effective strategy.

From the perspective of U.S. interests, regional stability will always predominate, and at this juncture, it is unlikely that transitioning states can adopt a retooled model of repressive stability. This narrows the options for prudent U.S. policy. In a changing Arab world, unconditional support of nominal allies will endanger the very stability that the United States prizes. As the necessity for representational politics and good governance grows, the policy dilemmas of old might begin to fade; the outmoded desire for client states might be supplanted by mature relationships with states that share important strategic interests with the United States. In this light, the ideal of democracy will likely come to be seen as a more necessary ingredient to stability and protection of American interests.

The United States must make clear to regimes that its support cannot substitute for the support of a country’s own citizens, and that the judgments of those citizens regarding their regime’s legitimacy must ultimately dictate the position of the United States. This is a critical message for America’s undemocratic allies in the region, and this conditional engagement represents the only plausible path forward for the United States.

The uneven performance of the region’s democratically elected Islamist leaders also suggests a policy approach toward states that have suppressed the forces for change—namely, encouragement of bottom-up democratization. Doing this would include taking steps such as pressing for municipal and provincial elections as a precursor to broader reforms. In pushing such a course on countries that have avoided regime change, the United States can explore anew the feasibility of more gradual reform, which has often been employed rhetorically by authoritarians to avoid actual reform. Further, an approach that seeks to impart governing responsibilities upon opposition groups will ease their potential transition to national leadership.

The United States also should not make assumptions about the inevitable role of Islamists. While they remain the most organized and potent political force in many countries in the region, the United States shouldn’t view the Arab world with an essentialist lens that sees in Islamist rule the natural equilibrium. Such an approach will alienate non-Islamist political forces and encourage the monopolization of power by Islamist groups. The emerging politics of the region are likely to be dynamic and the prevailing political order in transitioning countries will be fluid. Assuming Islamist predominance will also create a misplaced permissiveness with respect to religiously based repression. What might be termed the soft bigotry of Orientalist expectations would undermine notions of universal values and encourage an inherently unstable model of governance that will ill serve U.S. regional interests and undermine the prospects for peaceful and sustainable change.

Finally, any retooled U.S. approach to the region will require a more robust commitment to diplomacy that understands interactions with friend and foe alike less as a conferral of legitimacy and more as a means for furthering U.S. understanding and preparedness.

These course corrections by the United States would represent a welcome shift, but they will not fundamentally determine the trajectory of social and political change in the region. That can be decided only by its citizens. Prior to the uprisings, the Arab world was headed toward further stagnation and malaise. While that grim outcome is no longer certain, the region is now in the midst of a transformation that will likely require a generation’s progress before definitive judgments can be made about its success or the lack thereof.