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November 26, 2015

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Where I Stand:

Now is the time to act in Middle East

Seizing the opportunity might benefit the U.S. and struggling Arabs

Opportunity knocks almost always when we aren’t listening, can’t afford to listen or can’t recognize it for what it is.

I think a little bit of all three scenarios exists as we face an incredible opportunity in the Middle East that is knocking so loudly that everyone is rushing to the front door. Whether they, or we, open it may determine the nature of our relationship with not just the Arab world but the entire world for the rest of this century.

The Arab Awakening that the world is witnessing in real time in the Middle East can be placed under the heading, “Be careful what you wish for.” When President George W. Bush decided that we should go to war with Iraq, it was in no small measure an effort to shuffle the deck in that part of the world. Resting the United States’ national security interests on the stability of monarchies, dictatorships and military juntas, while necessary at times, is not a long-term formula for success. In a way, President Bush wished for what is happening, as has every president before and since.

Everyone knew the people who live under oppressive conditions in that part of the world would eventually rise up and revolutionize their expectations of government. Until that happened, of course, our national interests demanded that we support, befriend and encourage the governments that exist to act in a most friendly way toward the United States.

That is why we walked a not-so-taught tightrope in the region for decades, professing the glory of democracy while promoting the practical benefits that the autocrats and dictators conferred upon us. And, lest we forget, we backed that play with a healthy dose of foreign aid.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, for example, didn’t have the best record in the world of treating his people in a democratic and respectful way. He did, however, support our goals for the Middle East, rejecting Iranian hegemonic aspirations and clamping down on terrorists who sought to destroy any opportunity for peaceful relations with Israel. With the free flow of oil hanging in the delicate balance of U.S. foreign policy and the willingness of our partners where and how we found them, we constantly walked the line made murky by the clash of American values and the need for foreign oil.

So now we find ourselves in the middle of what appears to be an unstoppable Arab insistence that democratic values — which they see on television and read about in newspapers, on Facebook and through Twitter — be accessible to them. And, for the most part, this revolution fueled by the idea of democracy is succeeding with minimal violence.

Whether in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya or Egypt and possibly in places that don’t need the upheaval at the moment, such as Bahrain, what world leaders are witnessing is something they may have expected to happen — years from now — but weren’t ready for when it did. And that presents a very real issue for the United States because one could argue successfully that the timing is less than perfect.

As if the United States’ political system doesn’t have enough challenges — what with the last election removing many moderate voices from both parties and replacing them with ideological lemmings, more on one side than the other — we now have to decide whether to spend money that we might not have in places we might not want for causes we might not understand or care to understand.

This is why so many people miss opportunities in their lives. They just didn’t or didn’t want to recognize them! I would suggest that this time, for trillions of good reasons, we seize this one.

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to visit with Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain at the Brookings Institution. They had just returned from the Middle East and were willing to share their thoughts about what they saw and heard and surmised. Emotionally they were upbeat at the thought of people in Tunisia and Egypt changing out their government with relatively little violence — governments, we all know, that were not afraid to use force but which, in the end, could no longer keep people from their goal of freedom.

On a more practical note, they both expressed concern for what comes next because they didn’t know, nor did the brilliant minds at Brookings know, what the next day’s news would bring. What they all shared, though, was the belief that the United States has to be proactive in the “what comes next” scenario. If we sit back and let events take place without us, we will have no influence on which way the Middle East will go. And, it is important to note, it could go the wrong way, which would make the wars of the past few years look like child’s play.

In fact, if I had to handicap the intense Brookings-led discussions over the past few days, pessimism would be the significant favorite. That is in large part because the expectations of the people in the Arab streets far outstrip the ability of their countries and, so far, the world community to meet in the short term.

But try to meet them we must, because if things don’t go well in the next few months, most of the world will yearn for the more stable days under the autocrats and dictators because chaos, killing and the lack of oil production — not to mention the potential of nuclear-tipped existential wars — could be the result.

And that brings us back to the opportunity that is knocking at our door. Sen. Lieberman suggested that the United States organize a high-tech mission for the region immediately. Many of those young people we have watched take to the streets would rather have jobs that provide for their families and their futures. America should take the opportunity to lead the way.

Of much greater and more immediate significance is foreign aid to Egypt, for example. If ever there was reason to help people turn their country and their lives around, while they help us in our own strategic desires, it seems this is the time. This is the opportunity that is knocking.

The difficulty is our recognizing this chance to modify the Middle East and secure our national interests for many years to come. There are people in government who view as their sole mission the cutting of budgets and slashing of spending. Nothing wrong with that except that many of those folks have no understanding nor any desire to look beyond their own cause.

They will cut foreign aid in a heartbeat to show their constituents they are serious.

If they really want to be serious, though, all they need to do is look at the money they will save by ending foreign aid and compare that with the cost of gas at the pump when things go terribly wrong in the Middle East. We count foreign aid in the few billions of dollars. We will count the cost of $6 per gallon gasoline in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Every single year.

Like I said, opportunity is knocking right now. Let’s open the door and try our best to recognize it.

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