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In Obama speech, will there be aid for Arab Spring nations?

By Julie Taylor, Special to CNN
  • Julie Taylor: Obama to speak on Middle East Thursday; Arab Spring nations will be watching
  • Emerging democracies of Egypt, Tunisia could use aid for successful transition, she says
  • She suggests U.S. funds could be reallocated from counterterrorism to help
  • Taylor: Successful democratic transitions could challenge the jihadist narrative
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Barack Obama
  • Middle East

Editors note: Julie Taylor, a Middle East specialist who lived in Egypt for four years, is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy- and decision-making through research and analysis

(CNN) -- In his speech on Thursday, President Barack Obama will reportedly "reset" his Middle East policy and clarify the administration's position on the Arab Spring.

The speech comes at a critical time, especially for Egypt and Tunisia, countries with the greatest chance of achieving democratic consolidation.

The success of impending elections in these countries will be contingent on the ability of their transitional governments to demonstrate that post-Mubarak or post-Ben Ali life will be better. Yet Egypt and Tunisia face severe economic crises that could spell political doom. Their people will be listening intently for signals that Obama plans to come to their aid.

So far, the Obama administration has yet to formally ask Congress for additional funding for Egypt and Tunisia. Meanwhile, proposals initiated by members of Congress are bogged down in committee. Any reluctance is understandable given the current economic climate in the U.S.

But there is a way to provide financial assistance without additional overall expenditure. The Obama administration could request, and Congress could authorize, the reallocation of funding designated for counterterrorism initiatives toward fostering democratic consolidation.

The idea comes fresh on the heels of the Obama administration's greatest counterterrorism success to date: the death of Osama bin Laden. But other factors -- having nothing whatever to do with U.S. Special Forces, SEAL Team 6 or any other U.S.-sponsored counterterrorism program -- have struck a greater blow to the global jihadist movement.

Those factors are the uprisings from Tunisia to Syria known as the Arab Spring. They unleashed a sense of personal empowerment and articulated a political narrative of self-determination that undermines the very foundations of jihadism. If these popular movements succeed, they will be more effective than traditional counterterrorism. Instead of confronting jihadists directly, they simply make their arguments irrelevant.

Channeling some funds toward job creation or investment promotion in Egypt and Tunisia would not involve a reduction in counterterrorism spending. Rather, funds would be redirected toward policies that might bring greater value for taxpayer dollars.

Assisting Arab democratic transitions will not eliminate religious extremism. But successful transitions would directly challenge the jihadist brands that promote attacks on America.

Global jihadism was founded on the claim that the West, via immoral leaders acting as its lackey, subjugated Muslims. In the Arab world, the jihadist narrative provided a plausible explanation for the powerlessness that many citizens there experience daily.

This salvaged some personal dignity for those resigned to their fates. According to jihadist thought, true believers are not responsible for their current condition and despite their suffering are morally superior to their oppressors. But for a much smaller number, this thought was an impetus for action. There was now a reason to struggle: Extremism and violence could change the future, though the payoff would likely be in the afterlife.

By contrast, the message of the Arab Spring is that Arabs can shape their own future through democracy.

The message's capacity to deflate global jihadist movements was in evidence two weeks ago when news of Osama bin Laden's death was met with a collective shrug. Why? Because in Egypt and Tunisia, citizens are currently focused on building, shaping, planning and other actions associated with fulfilling their dreams.

By taking to the streets, they shattered the myths and fear-mongering that their former leaders used to subjugate them and that jihadists used to promote violence. If Egyptians and Tunisians can be masters of their own destiny, why attack the United States? The entire jihadist rationale unravels.

And yet, if these populist transitions do not succeed, it might appear to some Egyptians and Tunisians that greater forces were conspiring against them. The defeat of the Arab Spring would be used to validate jihadist claims. By providing additional financial assistance to these countries, the U.S. not only would be promoting democracy, it also would be combating terrorism.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julie Taylor.