STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Up until last Friday, the United States enjoyed one advantage across much of the Middle East. Many countries were ruled by autocratic strongmen, but Americans knew who to deal with and many dictators were friendly to the U.S.
A substantial part of that world appeared to fall away when Hosni Mubarak lost his job. Some analysts say it's time to rethink U.S. policy.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: When Egyptian protesters took to the streets on January 25th, they created a deep fissure in the U.S. strategy for the Middle East. By the time Mubarak finally relinquished his grip on power, some 18 days later, long-held policies that Washington believed help ensure stability in the region had been upended.
Career ambassador Thomas Pickering, now with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, says this is the time and the opportunity to rethink those decades-old policies.
Mr. THOMAS PICKERING (National Committee on American Foreign Policy): I think it is true that we're beginning to look at stability in a different context. Stability in the short term may be authoritarian regimes, but Egypt has shown that that doesn't hold true for the long term.
NORTHAM: Pickering says what the administration should do immediately is focus on the other autocratic regimes in the region.
Mr. PICKERING: What has happened in Egypt helps to reinforce our point to people in governments that haven't reformed that we could call authoritarian in that sense, that it may be the wave of the future and they better think about it.
NORTHAM: The U.S. gave unwavering support to Mubarak because, among other things, he backed the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord. The agreement was considered critical to stabilizing that region. Analysts say that treaty and other American-backed policies enraged Egyptians and many others in the Middle East.
But Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, says those voices were muffled for many years by Mubarak's regime. He says the U.S. would listen to Egyptian officials instead of the people. Khalidi says given the scale of the latest demonstrations, that will have to change.
Professor RASHID KHALIDI (Columbia University): People have feelings about American policies and they have very strong feelings. I think we should take those view seriously. It doesn't mean American policy is going to be determined by Middle Eastern public opinion, but insofar as countries in that region are able to develop credible democracies, the United States is going to have no alternative but to at least respect those opinions, even if it doesn't necessarily agree with them. And this is a new factor.
NORTHAM: Many people in the region don't want the U.S. interfering in their countries' internal affairs, says Dr. James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute. His book, "Arab Voices: What They're Saying to Us and Why It Matters," is based on comprehensive polls taken across the Arab world. Zogby says they do want help building capacity, creating jobs and transparent economies and the like. Zogby says many Arabs want the U.S. to treat them as it treats the Israelis. But he says the foreign policy elite here in the U.S. is too entrenched.
Dr. JAMES ZOGBY (Arab American Institute): We need a revolution here, and we need a revolution in our approach to how we deal with the Middle East. We cannot have a policy where we treat one group of people as the only people who count and the other group of people as pawns we move around on the board.
NORTHAM: David Makovsky, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Israel knows it has solid support in the U.S., but he says some Israelis question why President Obama didn't show more support for Mubarak once the protests started. And, Makovsky says, events in Egypt have spooked many people in Israel.
Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): They're worried. It's not that the U.S. is going to pull away from the Israelis, it's that the if the U.S. pulls away from the Egyptian and Jordanian governments and the militaries, that distancing will leave the pillars of peace to collapse.
NORTHAM: Still, Makovsky says it's unlikely the U.S. will abandon Egypt or Jordan, but that there's a nervousness heading into the unknown.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Hard to believe that it was just three weeks ago today that Egypt's protests began. In those three weeks only one leader has fallen in one country, but it feels to many like the world is changing.
The story is not over, and we're glad you're following along with MORNING EDITION on this public radio station today. You can follow us throughout this day on your station's website, at NPR.org, on Facebook and on Twitter. We're @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.