As a follow-up to what Laurel has already posted on the Rabat conference, here is an op-ed piece I’ve submitted to a few newspapers.

The Recent East-West Encounter that Didn’t Make Headlines

Earlier this week, a meeting between the US and Iran—thirty years in the making—made headlines worldwide. ‘The Great Satan’ and ‘The Axis of Evil’ came together, fittingly, in the city that epitomizes decades of failed US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

A few days earlier a similar dialogue had taken place in the same region, though this one didn’t stir up quite as much media attention. The participants were younger and the non-American counterparts were Moroccan instead of Iranian, but the issues on the table were the same: democracy, security, and US foreign policy in the MENA region. In Baghdad, current American leaders—with a penchant for unilateral, aggressive foreign policy—confronted the chaos created by their past actions. In Rabat, a younger generation—committed to international cooperation—looked ahead to a future in which they’ll assume the leading roles.

The ‘Moroccan-American Youth Dialogue on Democracy and Security’ in Rabat (May 25-26) brought together 50 delegates—half Moroccans and half Americans, most either university students or recent graduates—to discuss US-Moroccan relations and US presence in the MENA region. The two-day conference featured discussions such as “Talking about Democracy”, “US Democracy Promotion Projects in Morocco”, and “Conflict, Security and the Challenge of Terrorism”. The final result of their collaboration was 20 policy recommendations—written, amended, and ratified by the entire delegation—which will be sent to both the Moroccan and American governments.

As one of the American delegates, I was most struck by two recurring themes:
Theme #1: Contrary to the image many Americans have, the majority of people living in Arab countries can and do separate the American Government’s policies from the American people (a distinction that some in our country should take notes on–i.e. learning how not to blame the actions of a few terrorists on an entire religious community). During the course of the conference, the Moroccan participants emphasized this distinction many times and quickly apologized/clarified if they thought their statements had implied the contrary. Additionally, the people I spoke to do not—as we’ve heard so often in political speeches—‘hate our freedom’ or want to ‘destroy our way of life’. Actually, they hold great respect for many aspects of our democratic system and would like to work towards something similar. However, what they don’t want is a carbon copy of our system forcefully imposed upon them. Moroccans understand that democracy doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all model; each country must create its own custom design. Furthermore, true and lasting democracy cannot be imported or imposed on a society; it can only be generated from within.

Theme #2: The term ‘democracy’ has largely lost its credibility with many in the Middle East and North Africa. For most Arabs, the word ‘democracy’ does not invoke the ideal vision it does for us as Americans. The way our Government has propagandized and selectively applied the term abroad has permanently stained one of our nation’s most treasured values. Now the mention of ‘democracy’ raises a red flag in Arab countries, sparking suspicion that other interference will inevitably come along with the package. Who can blame them for not jumping to replace current less-than-perfect-but-tolerable systems with something completely unknown, whose stability hinges on the whims of a foreign bully’s larger policy agenda?

In short, both themes I’ve described stem from a US foreign policy that is outdated, ineffective, and increasingly unpopular at home and abroad. The Youth Dialogue in Rabat provided a glimpse into the alternative my colleagues and I are working towards: a more collaborative, inclusive, and effective approach to international relations.