I think the biggest mistakes took place in the broader Middle East region. I was at first very confused about some of the policies; now I understand that the US simply does not understand Islamism, even though it has been an active and increasingly powerful counter-ideology over at least three decades. Islamism is not compatible with democracy; Muslims can be democrats. There is a huge difference.Shilbey Telhami also made a clear point:
The prevailing view—that Islamists should be co-opted into existing political systems—simply will not work. The fallacy in this policy of appeasement lies in assuming that an individual or group that sounds moderate in fact is moderate. Often, Islamists are willing to make superficial concessions while continuing to hold an uncompromising worldview.
The academics, analysts and policy makers who argue that a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood today is “moderate” seem to disregard its ideology, history, and long-term strategy. They even seem to disregard the Brotherhood’s own statements. It is true that most affiliates of this movement do not directly call for terrorist acts, are open to dialogue with the West, and participate in democratic elections. Yet this is not sufficient
for them to qualify as “moderate,” especially when their ideology is so extreme. Turning a blind eye to the Brotherhood and its ideological extremism—even if done for the sake of combating violent extremism and terrorism—is a direct threat to the democratic order.
Unfortunately, since 9/11, the US has alienated many of its allies and strengthened enemies in the Muslim world. This is one of the reasons why the US lost the support of the secular movement within Turkey, which is traditionally the domestic constituency most closely allied to the West. It (correctly) perceives US policy as promoting a “moderate Islamist” government in their country—one that can serve as a model for the Muslim world. Yet even the current political leadership coming from an Islamist past opposes to be called “moderate Islamist” and instead prefers “Muslim
democrat” as a description.
One would think that since we have so much power and influence to persuade governments in the region even to go along with wars they don’t like, we can also persuade them to reform themselves out of power. This is a naive view. First, for us, the promotion of democracy will always be only a part-time job; for the regimes in the region, staying in power is their full time job—and they know far more about their surroundings than we will ever be able to learn. That alone is a challenge. But there is a far bigger challenge when we are engaged in two demanding wars for the conduct of which we need all the help we can get.I had to chuckle when moderator George Stephanopolous asked McFaul and others what the US should do if Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak (characterized by Larry Diamond with the Islamist epithet "Pharonic") placed his son into the Egyptian presidency--during the reign of George Bush the Second, while Joseph Biden has admitted placing a temporary replacement into his Senate seat to keep it warm for his son, after Barack Obama has nominated Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State (not to mention Chicago's current Blagojevich scandal)...as NY sportscaster Warner Wolf used to say: "Give me a break..."
When you are at war, your military and intelligence considerations trump the aid that USAID provides, or the talking points about democracy that your Ambassadors will go through with usually un-empowered subordinates of powerful autocratic rulers. In the war on terrorism, for which good intelligence is paramount and our own capabilities have been demonstrably low, cooperating with the intelligence services in the countries we are trying to reform is essential. Sometimes we can tell good intelligence form bad, but at other times we cannot see that regimes use the relationship to target their own opposition groups. Our military needs the cooperation of the regional military forces for transit, special operations, and basing of forces. In other words, when you are fighting two wars and have over 220, 000 troops to protect, your biggest institutional allies in every country in which you operate are the intelligence and military services—the very backbone of the authoritarian regimes that we are trying to weaken. In other words, our heavy military feet always trump our waving democracy hands.
This suggests that our efforts for transformative reform in the region are not likely to succeed so long as we are at war and have heavy military presence. But we can do more to shrink the gap between public opinion and governments as a prelude to incremental reform. This can only be done by putting forth a new vision for a broader and credible foreign policy that addresses regional concerns beyond democracy itself. It starts with reforming ourselves and restoring our credibility particularly of issues of human rights. It proceeds by working with international institutions to uphold commonly accepted norms and demanding compliance across the board. It pushes for credible reform in which the public can trust, concentrating on areas in which governments in the region may have incentives to cooperate, even if reluctantly. And it ends with the recognition that the power of our example must be restored as one of our greatest assets when it comes to inspiring democracy and human rights around the world.