This weekend marked an important moment for the future of the Middle East. Tunisia held the first election since the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia, where the protests began, held an orderly election amid scenes of public rejoicing just nine months after the fall of its prior government. As expected, the moderate Islamist al Nahda party is reported to have won the most votes, receiving a plurality of votes and joining a coalition with liberal parties. Bipartisan experts have stressed that the role of political Islam will increase in the Middle East as part of the process of democratization. The U.S. response must be calm and pragmatic, while at the same time holding all parties to their pledges to work within norms of democracy and pluralism. What happens next in Tunisia - and the Western reaction - will be critical signals about the prospects for democratic and economic reform across the Middle East.
Information is still emerging about the apparent death this morning of Muammar Qaddafi and the last of his inner circle in Sirte. What is clear is that Libyans are celebrating the departure of a tyrant who caused terror at home and abroad for decades. Americans will also welcome the defeat of a man who killed and terrorized our citizens - a defeat which came without U.S. troops on the ground and by sharing the burden with our allies and partners who are more directly affected by the events on the ground.
As attention in the U.S. is focused on the alleged Iranian terror plot, Tunisia prepares to hold the first post-Arab spring elections this weekend - the fruits of its leading role and a bellwether for transition across the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a surprise visit to Libya to pledge U.S. aid to the transitional government. Israel and Hamas completed the first part of their prisoner exchange, securing the release of Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinians, and highlighting a new mediating role for Egypt. Elsewhere the news was less positive: the threat of open civil war between Syrian protestors and Assad forces is increasing daily; community relations are worsening in Egypt; and the violence in Yemen worsens.
Yesterday, the sixty-sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly opened in New York, the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors convened for its second day, and reports out of Iran suggested modest yet significant progress on human rights and nuclear talks. Against this backdrop, the National Security Network and the Project on Middle East Democracy hosted a panel discussion of how the democracy movements sweeping the Arab world are interacting with regional dynamics to create new opportunities and challenges for the U.S. - and how this is playing out at the United Nations.
The uprisings in the Middle East, now in their seventh month, continue to produce major news: U.S. recognition of the Libyan opposition; Egyptian steps toward elections and civilian-military disagreements; heightened violence in Syria; and a wobbly opposition coalition facing an absent leader in Yemen who refuses to depart.
President Obama's Europe visit this week highlights the continued importance of NATO, the most successful military alliance in history; the economic relationships that will be on display at the G8 in France; and the broader transatlantic relationship, equally important in today's turbulent environment. The Obama administration has strengthened many of these important relationships while working to improve security on the continent. Long-standing concerns - Afghanistan, Middle East peace, Iran - join the Arab Spring and other emerging issues as key places for meaningful cooperation and burden-sharing with our allies and partners.
Recognizing that the status quo is unsustainable, President Obama sought last week to revive the long-stalled Middle East peace process. He reiterated his case yesterday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, saying "[W]e can't afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast." Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to speak to the AIPAC conference today as well as to address a joint session of Congress tomorrow. While it will be a long and difficult process, going forward experts agree that lasting peace is in the interest of both U.S. and Israeli security.
President Obama is expected to address the nation on Thursday to discuss the unprecedented changes that are sweeping the Middle East. The rising up of Arab citizens has rebuffed Osama bin Laden's message of extremism and violence - but also swept away many of the familiar underpinnings of U.S. influence in the region. In this new environment, the U.S. faces three sets of challenges: realigning our interests and values; offering practical assistance, not cookie-cutter solutions, to the problems at hand; and remaining focused, even in changed circumstances, on the core challenges of Middle East peace, terrorism, building new partnerships with new powers and dealing with Iran. Our most valuable tools are civilian - technology, private sector and personal ties, renewed diplomacy and above all showing by our example that we are ready to partner with those who are willing to partner with us.