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America's challenge in the Arab world

When the "Arab Spring" erupted, the cry of demonstrators to their rulers was Irhal ("get out"). And now, in Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere, we again hear cry of Irhal, directed at the new leaders of what increasingly seem like the old systems, unconvincingly repackaged.

Arab governance systems are yet not as transformed as many had hoped. However a new process of shaping Arab public opinion has emerged, facilitated by popular dynamism combined with the Internet and other technological innovations. And this revolution in discourse and communications provides an unprecedented opportunity to confront issues that have bedeviled our relations with the Arab world for decades.

Our reputation in most Arab countries is now arguably at an all-time low. The number of Arabs who publicly and unapologetically identify as allies of the United States has been visibly shrinking. The prevailing discourse serves as a powerful disincentive to Arab political leaders who could be inclined to openly align with American goals and values.

The United States necessarily has to try to balance its values and interests. But we need to recognize that the contest between competing worldviews unleashed by the "Arab Spring" will have a decisive impact on not only whether our values prevail, but also on whether our interests can be secured. The traditional hierarchy of emphasizing immediate interests over long-term goals and values must be reevaluated.

We cannot afford, in terms of either values or interests, to allow a chauvinistic, paranoid and insular worldview to prevail in the Middle East. Our values and our interests converge in helping those in the Arab world who wish to achieve peace and prosperity by developing open, modern and pluralistic societies, with accountable governments, to succeed.

In his recent address in Jerusalem, President Barack Obama correctly emphasized that public engagement is central to shaping political outcomes. Mr. Obama bluntly said, "leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see."

In a masterful display of public diplomacy, Mr. Obama strove to open the public space on Israeli-Palestinian peace. He suggested ordinary people must take the initiative to overcome their suspicions and connect with others, both within their own societies and by reaching beyond them.

This imperative is not restricted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a broader need for a robust American outreach to the Arab world.

The Arab public sphere is dominated by narratives that emphasize deep animosity toward the United States. Such suspicions often are rooted in real differences over policy. But they are also driven by self-serving machinations.

The United States should help reclaim the Arab public sphere from the domination of this hostility. We should pursue a new conversation with the Arab world, and support a wide-ranging debate within it. As we develop policies that take into account the new regional political landscape, we must learn better how to communicate with, and listen to, the Arab peoples.

The confrontation with dominant anti-American Arab political narratives should not shy away from controversy. To the contrary, the aim should be to participate in the debate among Arabs about values. This can only be done with the utmost respect for the Arab peoples, their traditions, religions and contributions to human civilization. But it cannot be done without openly and honestly challenging an anti-American orthodoxy that has become politically correct in Arab nations.

When concepts such as democracy, secularism and liberalism are stigmatized and discredited as products of an alien and hostile culture, their Arab advocates are crippled from the outset.

A basic decision needs to be made. We can resign ourselves to downplaying and shortchanging these concepts. Or we can reassert and redefine them by demonstrating in practical terms how these values — along with our system of entrepreneurship — have informed American success and are fueling growth and progress around the world.

This involves emphasizing that democracy and the consent of the governed are not simply an exercise in elections but require limitations on the power of government and protections for inalienable rights of individuals, minorities and women. It should focus on the balance between the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens. It should emphasize the rule of law, separation of powers, pluralism and the need for compromise in building political stability.

American public diplomacy efforts over the past decade have been creditable and professional. But now is the time to take this effort closer to the top of the policy agenda.

If we do not define our political values and attitudes for the Arab peoples, we can be assured that others will continue to do just that. In that case, our country and our friends in the region risk losing the great contest of ideas that is unfolding in the Middle East. Neither our interests nor our values, nor those of the Arab peoples, can afford that.

Ziad J. Asali is President of the American Task Force on Palestine. His email is zasali@atfp.net.

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