U.S. must side with activists

Recent developments in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere have convinced skeptics that U.S. human rights promotion in the Middle East causes more harm than good by inciting instability — positioning the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-Western forces to win elections or otherwise seize power.

The argument has superficial appeal, but it rests on problematic assumptions about the region and U.S. human rights promotion. In fact, the case for promoting human rights in the region is stronger than ever.

Regional stability, which U.S. leaders often pursued in hopes of securing a reliable flow of oil, is becoming an artifact of history. As the Arab Spring made clear, change is coming whether we like it or not. The region’s people are unusually young and increasingly restive about the freedom and opportunity that their governments have failed to provide.

A more democratic region would reduce threats to U.S. interests because democracies tend neither to make war with one another nor sponsor terrorism. A freer, more prosperous region would boost trade and investment opportunities for U.S. businesses, generating more prosperity in the United States.

But if change is inevitable, it will not automatically bring the results we want. So, rather than cede the region’s future to either home-grown jihadists or the outside influence of China and Russia — neither of which shares our values or interests — the United States must promote the forces on the ground that are genuinely working for a freer, more democratic Middle East.

To boost our chances of success, we should keep five rules in mind:

Instead, we should help transitioning nations plant the values and create the institutions that ensure long-term freedom and democracy. The values include free speech and free assembly, tolerance and non-violence, and women and minority rights; the institutions include opposition parties, a free and independent media, and a thriving civil society.

We must resist the trap of moving from one short-term exigency to another and losing sight of the long-term picture. Promoting human rights is hard work, and it requires a commitment that we have not always sustained.

Haas is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.