Washington should not base its policy toward the greater Middle East on the assumption that the region is democratizing quickly or sustainably. The United States and other Western countries should encourage liberal reforms, support civil society, and provide technical assistance in improving countries’ constitutions and financial systems. But the perceived promise of the Arab uprisings should not cause the United States to overlook its main strategic priorities in the region. Like it or not, the United States counts among its allies a number of authoritarian Arab countries, and they are essential partners in protecting its interests. The normative hope that liberal democracy may flourish in the future must be balanced by the need to work with governments and societies as they exist today.
A central goal remains counterbalancing Iran — not only preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons but also checking its long-term regional ambitions. Iran views the United States as its main ideological and geopolitical enemy, and it is seeking to become the preeminent power in the Middle East and to promote its revolutionary ideology. Tehran has lent support to a number of U.S. adversaries and organizations that challenge U.S. interests, including Shiite groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian terrorist groups, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez. Even though many of the countries that the United States will rely on to help counter Iran, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, are not democratic, their cooperation is too important for Washington to forsake.
Another crucial goal is maintaining the free flow of energy resources at reasonable prices. The United States imports about 23 percent of its crude oil and related products from the Arab world, particularly from Saudi Arabia (1.2 million barrels per day in August 2012), Iraq (550,000 barrels), Algeria (303,000 barrels), and Kuwait (301,000 barrels). Several of these countries are — not coincidentally given their immense oil wealth — undemocratic. This means that for the foreseeable future, the United States must continue to work with authoritarian states to preserve its energy security.
Finally, the United States needs to work with nondemocratic countries on fighting terrorism.