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'If young people don't get jobs, this is not going to go away'

The US strategy toward the Middle East was too heavily focused on terrorism and Islamism, argues a former US ambassador to Yemen. Instead, the emphasis should be on improving the economic conditions for young people.

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Barbara K. Bodine is a diplomat in residence at Princeton University in New Jersey. Before leaving government she served for more than 30 years in the US Foreign Service, for instance as ambassador to Yemen from 1997-2001 and as the senior State Department official and first coalition coordinator for reconstruction in Baghdad in 2003.

Deutsche Welle: Washington's strategy toward the Arab World at its core was a pretty simple one: Work with the countries that to a larger or smaller degree are allies of the US in order to keep in check and isolate those that are openly hostile toward the United States, most notably Iran, even though it's of course not an Arab state. Is that strategy sustainable as we witness a mass revolt that is that is sweeping the Arab world?

Barbara K. Bodine: The upheaval across the Arab World that now runs from Morocco all the way to Oman is driven by a whole collection of very local demands and frustrations. The basic tenets of US foreign policy in the Gulf which is to protect our interests and in many ways to protect the interests of our friends, I think that will continue.

How we will do it is obviously going to have to change. But for example the Iranian threat is not just a threat to the United States and West. Many of the small Gulf states are concerned about Iranian ambitions. So that larger tenet of the policy I think will continue. Who we will be working with six months from now, that's far less clear.

Despite some half-hearted efforts, democracy promotion in the past hasn't really been a primary interest of the US in the Arab world. Could that backfire when democratic protestors who toppled their dictators will remember how Washington propped up some of those rulers over decades?

We have two phenomenons going on. We have some rebellions against the full autocracies which are leading to deposing people like Ben-Ali and probably Gadhafi and certainly Mubarak. And then you have some other governments where there is really a push for reforms within the structure. Although, as long as their demands are not met there is a possibility that the demands will increase.

To a certain extent we have actually been working with many of the groups that are involved in these demonstrations and I would say that in some ways what we are seeing is particularly the younger generation demanding the kinds of changes that we have been supporting and we have been working with a wide variety of civil society and even some moderate Islamist groups. How we play this, yes, could negatively effect us in the long term, but if you take a look at the president's speeches he has been very careful to support the demands of the protestors for their fundamental political and civil rights.

And our support for the governments has been tempered very clearly both publicly and absolutely in private diplomatic channels with the encouragement that those governments work with their people to find ways of opening a dialogue, of meeting their demands, of trying to resolve these cataclysmic regime changes across the region.

Many experts argue that the Obama administration wasn't adequately prepared for the mass revolt in the Arab World. Do you think it is better prepared for the aftermath of the events and is there a Plan B for how to deal with Arab World?

I don't think anyone in the world if you would have asked them on January 1 if by March 1 at least three of the most autocratic leaders would be overthrown or in the case of Gadhafi probably about to be overthrown, I don't think anyone knew that. And no one could have predicted that it spread the way it did.

I do think that we are in the process of scrambling to try to figure out how to not get ahead of what is going on. But we have also been very careful not to embrace them either because that could actually delegitimize some of the protestors. But yes, there are major discussions taking place in Washington on how do we deal with what a new Middle East will be like however it comes out.

If you were asked to formulate a post-Mubarak strategy for the Arab World for the White House what would it look like?

I do think - going back a bit to one of your earlier questions - that our policy toward the Middle East over the last 10 years has been so overly focused on al-Qaeda and Islamist extremism and terrorism, that it isn't so much that we missed this democratic wave, but I don't think that we worked with governments enough to address what is the fundamental driver of a lot of this which is a lack of jobs, stagnant economies, the lack of opportunity for the youth bulge which dominates the Middle East.

And if I was going to advise the administration going forward I would need to refocus and reframe what we consider the bedrock reforms that are necessary, and they are economic as well as political. If these young people do not have jobs this is not going to go away.

In the grand scheme of things, will foreign policy toward the Middle East and the Arab World become easier or harder after the dust settles from all these upheavals?

In the long term foreign policy will be easier. We have had as a fundamental of our foreign policy, even if is hasn't been always at the top, a push for reforms, particularly our friends in the Gulf, pushing them to continue to open up their political structures. And we have been working with media and civil society and all of these people for 20 years that I know of. And it's going to be a messier foreign policy, but I don't particularly think that it's going to be worse relationship with these countries than before.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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