The failure of America's do-nothing policy in the Middle East

The Arab Spring demonstrated the shortsightedness of the “stability paradigm”— the model of Arab governments doing the West’s bidding in return for the West overlooking the suppression of dissent—that had animated U.S. and European policy for a half-century. Regimes that once seemed resilient crumbled more quickly than anyone could have imagined. If there was a lesson to be learned, it was that human rights and democratic reform would need to be prioritized after the Obama administration had—hoping to distinguish itself from its predecessor—deemphasized their importance.

Almost five years later, however, it appears that Western governments have learned rather different lessons. The reorientation that many both in the region and within the foreign-policy community had hoped for did not come to pass. In most Arab countries, with the exception of Libya (and even then only briefly), the Obama administration was content to tinker around the margins of existing policies. This laissez-faire approach produced its own set of consequences.

The unwillingness or inability to use American leverage to pressure Arab governments, including those with Islamist leanings, came at a cost. The United States can provide a credible threat of sanction by suspending or canceling much-needed economic assistance. Such a punitive approach can backfire, of course, given the understandable sensitivities in the region about the interference of foreign powers. A better alternative is “positive conditionality”—providing economic and political incentives for governments to meet explicit, measurable benchmarks on democratic reform.