The Neoliberal Take on the Middle EastA consensus is emerging in Washington that the greater Middle East constitutes the primary strategic challenge of our time and that the West must fundamentally rethink the way it approaches this region. In the past, Washington assumed it didn't have to care about the internal order of these countries so long as they accommodated our interests in their foreign policies. If things got really bad, Washington would step in and intervene, in a modern-day version of the popular game whack-a-mole.
But whack-a-mole isn't a very good game, and it's an even worse foreign policy. Sept. 11, 2001, taught us the price we pay for ignoring the underlying problems of the region. The question now is how best to transform the Middle East so that it no longer produces people who want to kill us in great numbers and increasingly have the ability to do so. To be sure, traditionalists across the government and in foreign policy still argue that such goals are beyond the pale and that the West cannot possibly "solve" the problems of the region and must instead manage the status quo better to limit our risk.
But this approach is rapidly losing out, and for good reason; if Las Vegas were giving odds, this wouldn't be a good bet. Instead, the debate is increasingly between the neoconservative strategy of coercive democratization and what might be called the neoliberal alternative emerging among internationalist Democrats and moderate Republicans. Neocons and neoliberals recognize that the status quo in the Middle East is producing anti-Americanism, terrorism and failed and rogue states and has gone way beyond "management." Both agree the West must promote the transformation and democratization of the region. But they disagree profoundly on how best to do so. Neoliberals believe that coercive democratization is bound to fail and that true success will come only from a long-term effort to help push Arabs to reform their own societies from within. This leads to four fundamental differences.
Neoliberals, among whom we number ourselves, believe in political preemption first and military preemption only as a last resort. We supported the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq because we concluded that force was the only way to lance these boils. But force will not work as a normal tool of policy or social engineering in the Middle East. Our goal must be to have the Arabs embrace democracy and modernization, not to force it down their throats. At present there really are only two political voices in the Arab world: One is the regimes and their cronies, the other the Islamic fundamentalists. We need to help foster alternatives. A growing number of Arabs are calling for these changes, and we must find ways to help them transform their societies even if it takes decades and not months.