Contemplating Egypt at the Herzliya Conference

The second mistaken belief is that effective engagement with Syria, with Iran, and indeed with the greater Muslim world primarily depends on abandoning arrogant American rhetoric, owning up to the sins of American colonialism and imperialism, and approaching Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with outstretched hand and open heart.

These two mistaken beliefs have obscured for two years what America’s regional allies -- Sunni Arab rulers as well as Israel -- have been telling the Obama administration from the beginning. In their view, the Islamic Republic of Iran -- because of its sponsorship of Islamic extremism, funding and arming of Hezbollah and Hamas, pursuit of nuclear weapons, and quest for regional hegemony -- represents the great regional menace to their vital national security interests, which include the interest they share with the U.S. in the preservation of a stable international order.

In addition to obscuring the threat posed by Iran, President Obama’s magnification of the regional significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his exaggerated faith in engagement concealed a second major source of regional instability. It comes from the grievances of, and mounting pressure generated by, more than 350 million non-Palestinian Arabs -- approximately 5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza -- living under oppressive authoritarian regimes throughout the greater Middle East.

As the 9/11 attacks brought into focus for many Americans the long-simmering threat of transnational Islamic extremism, so too the uprisings in Tunisia and the upheaval in Egypt can provide an occasion for the Obama administration to clarify its understanding of the Middle East and the explosive, pent-up forces it contains. It would be a grave error, to which statements coming from the president and his administration seem prone, to see in these forces only the longing to be free. The mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo also are driven by the dangerous desire to realize through politics the will of Allah, and the destabilizing aspiration to reassert pan-Arab nationalism.

None of this is to deny the importance of Israelis and Palestinians working assiduously to create an independent Palestinian state that represents, and protects the rights of, its citizens and that also establishes secure borders for Israel and provides recognition of it as Jewish and democratic. Such is in the interest of both Palestinians and Israelis.

At the same time, the Obama administration should learn from the fact that the popular protests that swept a dictator from power in Tunisia and have compelled the president of Egypt to step aside had next to nothing to do with the Palestinians or Israel.

In particular, recent events should persuade the U.S. to turn its attention to the internal sources of stability and instability of the autocratic Arab regimes of the Middle East. Understanding the internal sources of stability and instability of Arab autocracies -- which Israeli national security experts stressed throughout the Herzliya Conference means appreciating the political impact of the spirit of Islam -- is a prerequisite to a responsible American foreign policy, one that enhances stability in the region through gradual, incremental, cautious, calibrated, context-sensitive steps to promote freedom.

That policy will place an emphasis not on elections, which easily produce illiberal results, but on improving education, expanding rights, enlarging opportunity, and enhancing the rule of law. With a view to Egypt and beyond, reasonable pessimists and reasonable optimists at the Herzliya Conference agreed on one crucial point: if you want democracy in the long run, you must focus in the short and intermediate term on the moral and cultural preconditions of freedom.