The Middle East has entered a period of rapid change. Two long-standing dictatorships, in Egypt and Tunisia, have collapsed in the wake of widespread protests. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi confronts a rebellion that has split his repressive regime, and elicited international military support. Leaders in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other countries are contending with angry crowds each day. The governments in Syria and Bahrain have been especially brutal in their deployment of violent force against demonstrators, but it appears unlikely they can squash the movements in their countries. The Iranian government, which confronted its own internal “green” revolution in 2009, is nervously observing all of these events, contributing in the case of Syria to the forces of repression.
What should the United States and its NATO allies do about all of these events? The air attacks against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya and the proposed economic sanctions on Syria have been the policy options of choice. They reflect a commitment to support participatory change in the region, penalizing those who most violently stand in the way. At the same time, the United States and its NATO allies have encouraged calibrated, orderly change. In the case of Egypt, this meant encouraging dictator Hosni Mubarak to resign, but also supporting a transitional military government in his place. In Yemen, the U.S. and its allies have requested dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation through a negotiated power transition that involves multiple groups.
So far, these mixed actions have produced mixed results. The public demonstrations have continued, and if anything, spread throughout the region. The protesters are not necessarily pro-Western, but they appear free from the religious extremism and terroristic impulses that frighten foreigners. The young men and women in the streets, it seems, simply want more control over their governments. They want to focus on developing their societies, not attacking foreigners or institutionalizing a hateful ideology.
Unfortunately, the forces of repression have remained resilient in the shadow of the protests. Gaddafi continues to field a formidable army against the rebels in Libya. Syria’s military appears loyal to dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and comfortable firing upon unruly civilians. The Saudis have sent military aid to the embattled regime in Bahrain. Iran, one of strongest military powers in the region, is sending armed support to its allies. Most unsettling, regional instability has contributed to Israeli insecurity, and preparations for Israeli military action if popular energies turn on the Jewish state, as they have in the past.
The next steps for American and allied policy-makers are not clear. Cautious policies that encourage participatory reform within an orderly framework seem most sensible. Mixed policies that are attentive to particular national circumstances, and unpredictable developments, are necessary. Even the most powerful foreign actors have very limited influence in the Middle East right now.
There is, however, one step that American, Canadian, and European leaders should consider. The repressive forces in the Middle East assert their power through the control of information. They systematically misinform and isolate their populations. They continuously circulate self-serving propaganda. New social media and the Internet have challenged the rulers’ monopoly on information in recent years, but restrictions on communication remain considerable in many of the regimes. The United States can help to change that with a determined and focused policy of information openness.
A policy of information openness would draw on similar efforts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. On that model, the American, Canadian, and European governments should coordinate the following activities:
1. A firm and unequivocal statement that they oppose political censorship in all cases. They should pledge to condemn all government efforts to control the free circulation of news in the region.
2. A serious effort to sponsor alternative news sources for citizens in the Middle East. This means aid, direct and indirect, for circulators of news inside the region. It also means the creation of new external organizations (including radio, Internet, and social media) led by Middle East emigres to inform citizens of the region. Foreign societies must do more to send fair information into the region.
3. A commitment to partnerships with Middle East-based groups that also support the free flow of information. In this sense, American, Canadian, and European governments should forge more supportive connections with Al-Jazeera and its counterparts.
4. An intensive set of government-sponsored training programs for journalists from the Middle East, and Westerners who are interested in becoming serious contributors to the circulation of news in the region. Language-training, skill development, ethical instruction, and help with the formation of support groups is crucial for the expanded exchange of information in the unstable circumstances of the contemporary Middle East.
The United States and its allies have their own problems with the circulation of fair and informative news in their societies. We are far from perfect. Nonetheless, the Western experience with a free press is one of the strongest hinges for political participation, innovation, and stability on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The time has come to make support for a free press the centerpiece of Middle East foreign policy.
This blog originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca