The wave of popular unrest that has spread across the Arab world in recent weeks, toppling the regime in Tunisia, creating the mass protests in Egypt, and leading other governments in the region to scramble to choke off similar eruptions, has evoked images of 1989, when Communist governments fell like dominoes in Eastern Europe. Like today, those earlier events unfolded with surprising speed, catching the West (as well as the oppressive regimes) off guard. But President George H.W. Bush’s task in that period—and then Bill Clinton’s—was made far easier by the fact that there was an infrastructure in place in 1989 to assist and cajole Central and Eastern Europe’s political, economic, and military elites in the move from authoritarianism to democracy. In today’s Middle East, President Obama has far less to offer to encourage a similar transition.
Long before the East European uprisings, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act’s human rights provisions gave opposition figures like Polish labor leader Lech Walesa and Czech writer Vaclav Havel opportunities to build ties to the West and helped create the civil society that enabled the development of democracy. After Communism collapsed, the United States and the European Union provided vast amounts of political, economic, and legal assistance. NATO and the EU also provided a powerful impetus for reform in the former Warsaw Pact, by conditioning membership in a free and united Europe on the protection of human rights and the rule of law, as well as the acceptance of interstate borders. And, believing that the institution most capable of halting reform in these states was the military, NATO created the Partnership for Peace to build military-to-military ties that would help build the accountability, transparency, and civilian control so crucial to the establishment of freedom and democracy.
In 2011, the United States does not have the same standing in the Arab world with opposition movements that it did in 1989 in Europe, nor do these countries seek to join Western institutions. The West has not promoted a Helsinki-type process in the Middle East that might have built ties with opposition forces, nor fostered a broader regional security framework that could promote peace. Although Hosni Mubarak won’t be around past September, President Obama doesn’t have the kinds of carrots for reform that his predecessors had in the 1990s. And even if Egypt makes a peaceful transition to democracy with a supportive, rather than oppressive, military, it is not inevitable that other Arab countries follow suit.
To be sure, the United States and Europe are not completely without tools, and there is a positive role that NATO and the EU can play in the Middle East, even without having the membership card to play. The seven-member Mediterranean Dialogue creates a framework for NATO to work with countries like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Algeria. Just as the Partnership for Peace worked with the militaries of regimes in transition in Europe, it could assist the Egyptian military in fostering democracy. And, of course, the European Union could provide financial assistance to back democratically elected leaders struggling to provide for their populations. But until countries like Egypt and Iraq become truly democratic, successful, and stable to the point where they can provide a model for the rest of the Middle East—as the much more numerous Western European nations did for their Eastern brethren—there will be no magnetic force compelling regional stability and reform.