One year ago this week, a United States Institute of Peace report warned that the widening moral, ideological and social gap between regimes and societies had left Arab regimes vulnerable to "systemic domestic crises and exogenous economic, political or security shocks." But if the tumultuous protests in Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria and most recently Egypt are to have any kind of silver lining, they must be the catalyst for a major reevaluation of how the U.S. can most effectively promote democratic change in the Arab world.
For starters, this effort should reexamine the "demand side" approach that has long guided U.S. democracy assistance programs. This approach assumes that local civil society groups can acquire the capacity to prod regimes to reform. While important, by themselves civil society groups can achieve little. On the contrary, substantive political change will never unfold absent high-level efforts by our national leaders and diplomats to encourage Arab regimes to supply substantive constitutional, legal and institutional democratic reforms. U.S. democracy promoters are well aware of the need for such a supply side strategy. But many, and particularly those in government, question whether the U.S. has the diplomatic leverage to press Arab rulers to move beyond the boundaries of state-managed political participation.