U.S. Mideast policy: Keeping our friends closer

November 4, 2013

It is time for Washington to change the parameters of the debate on its foreign policy toward the greater Middle East. It is not a choice between human rights and security — rather, the two goals should go hand in hand.

The United States does not need to lose its longtime allies in the Middle East and beyond in order to promote human rights and democracy. In fact, U.S. allies will be more likely to undertake political reform if they feel that Washington is a close partner.

A number of U.S. allies in the Middle East have recently expressed concern regarding Washington’s frequent flips in policies toward the region. The Obama administration’s policy toward the challenges arising from the Middle East has indeed been a series of zigzags: bold moves and initiatives, accompanied by retreats and withdrawals.

This vacillation derives from a perceived clash between the goal of promoting democratization and human rights as well as preserving the regimes of U.S. allies in the region.

This dichotomy is deeply flawed, however. Protection of human rights is not necessarily better under illiberal elected regimes and is most endangered in failed states — which are often the outcome when Washington withdraws its support for a regime.

To improve U.S. policy in the Middle East, the Obama administration should view promotion of both security and human rights as complementary.

A number of analytical tools could provide guidelines for U.S. policy in the unstable Middle East and beyond.

First, when Washington is not reasonably certain of the outcome of its intervention, it should not interfere. There is often no clear alternative political force that can govern — as seen in the Syria crisis. By contributing to the downfall of a regime when there is no clear competent replacement, Washington is only helping to create a new failed state.

And failed states must be avoided. Lack of governance is not democracy. A failed state produces the most serious threats to human life, and usually special dangers to women and minorities. This was evident in the lawlessness after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the current civil war in Syria.

Second, anti-regime activity should not be confused with pro-democracy movements. Internecine war can be a struggle between the “bad” guys and the “worse” guys, or the “bad” guys and the other “bad” guys. Only after offering support for the rebels in Syria, for example, did the U.S. fully understand the extent of the links of these groups to Islamic extremists.

Often oppositions to ruling autocratic governments do not necessarily want to establish democracy — just to consolidate their own rule. We saw this in Egypt, when Mohamed Morsi replaced Hosni Mubarak. Many new populist governments do not support the rights of women and minorities. Even when democratically elected, they enact laws that represent the tyranny of the majority and do not preserve the rights of the minority.

Third, policy toward each case should be based on the specific circumstances. Washington should evaluate the overall consequences for human freedom and security in that location — not just the technical logistics of elections. Some monarchies, such as in Jordan and Morocco, though clearly non-democratic, do a better job of protecting minority rights than their populist counterparts.

Fourth, Washington should calculate the role of foreign forces in unfolding political scenarios. Intervening to support foreign elections can have much less risk and lower costs than military intervention. Russia, for example, often promotes its interests and tries to shape political outcomes through the ballot box in foreign states. Washington should not see these interventions as representing popular will.

Fifth, in its promotion of human rights policies, Washington should not only support religious freedom. Freedom from religion is the key. In most of the Middle East, this concept is absent. Often the first moves of the democratically elected regimes in the post-Arab Spring, including Egypt and Tunisia, has been the removal of the rights of secular citizens.

Turkey’s democratically elected government has also incrementally narrowed the rights of secular Turkish citizens. Washington has, however, done little to counter those changes — yet has been critical of countries like Azerbaijan that have banned the head scarf and other religious symbols in public schools.

Though Washington trumpets freedom of religion, it rarely stands up for freedom from religious coercion.

It is possible for Washington to maintain its alliances while also promoting human rights and democracy. In the former Soviet Union, the states that have been most integrated with the West, such as the Baltic states, have made the most significant strides to democracy.

This can be an example for the Middle East as well. And, as they take on the risks of democratization, these allies may be more likely to heed U.S. suggestions when Washington is actively engaged.


PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah at Al-Hummar Palace in Amman, March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed


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This “analysis” is as confusing regarding a country’s “vital interests” and “national interests” as was Wilson’s “moral recognition” of a democratic Mexican government in 1914 (or thereabouts). There is NO mention of our relationship to Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive and authoritarian states in the world. There is no mention of the Islamist/Jihadist desire for all to be under Sharia law or die. Simply put, we have lost our way through the notion of implanting our values on others regarding our national and vital interest. Let us be clear about our intentions as well as other nations intentions. Simply put, we do what is in OUR best interest. Plain and simple. We do what is in our “vital interest.” We protected Saudi Arabian oil because it is in our “vital interest.” With the change in that equilibrium to the extent that we are now the #2 producer of oil, soon to be the #1 producer in a year or less, the “protection” of the Saudis is no longer part of our “vital interest” nor should it be. Todays friends may be tomorrows adversaries. Such is the way of the world. Save for England and perhaps Germany and the Nordic Countries, we don’t really have “friends.” We have allies who share our “vital interests” that they seem to believe is in line with their “vital interests.” If that changes so will the relationship. We owe nothing to most nations of the world and they owe nothing to us. That simple. Once that is understood, we can deal with anyone. To criticize a country or not criticize a country for it’s “moral” attitude is hypocritical. We don’t criticize China for all of its authoritarianism (or take punitive action) UNLESS it is in OUR “vital interest” militarily, economically (concurrent with political considerations) yet we criticize Russia or Azerbaijan but not Turkey. We are not consistent nor is any nation in the world. Telling people “how to act, culturally” is not in our “vital interest” It is in the special interest of some. Our “vital interest” is protecting the security of the United States, both militarily and economically.
We are in a “cultural war” with Islam. Believe it or not. Who are we to criticize any country culturally until we can verify that we are “perfect” in our country. Otherwise, we too are hypocritical. If you believe we ARE culturally perfect, I’d like to know your definition of perfect.

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

This is a smart article. If the Arab-spring has shown us anything it is that democracy and human rights do not necessarily go together when there are no liberal undercurrents present among the people. It just becomes the tyranny of the majority. The Christian minority in Egypt has suffered greatly since the introduction of democracy there. The issue of human-rights in post-revolution Libya is appalling, but of little concern to the countries that helped it become that way.

Democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The writer justifiably mentions Azerbaijan in her article, and that is a great example of a country that upholds values of human-rights while not being a democracy. It is perhaps one of the very few countries in the world that did not prosecute the large Jewish minority living within it (along with Yugoslavia, another non-democratic state).

Whether the United-States should promote freedom from religion in the world is a trickier subject, since the U.S. itself hasn’t completely managed to do that, but the example of criticizing Azerbaijani laws against head scarves is somewhat odd and is most likely meant to gain favor in other Muslim countries listening-in, although I don’t see how it will help in that regard.

I definitely agree with the writer that the U.S. should be less squeamish about preferring stable regimes that can slowly be adapted to U.S. liberal values (such as Azerbaijan), over quick-fixes that lead to failed-states and loss of human-rights (such as Libya).

Posted by E-Ret | Report as abusive

You contradict yourself. You say that it is all about interests and temporary allies, yet then you mention Germany as being one of the few “true friends” the U.S. has. Did you forget that 60 years ago Germany was the greatest enemy to the west? That is a clear example of how “vital interests” and liberal values can eventually turn into true change.
Also, I disagree with your comment about a “cultural war” with Islam. The U.S. is not fighting Islam, and there is no such thing as one “Islam” united against the west. The U.S. has a good relationship with Saudi-Arabia, Azerbaijan and Turkey (and before 79′, with Iran). You may view this as a cynical U.S. interest if you wish, but how else do you want to end your so-called “cultural war”? By declaring one culture supreme, or by making initial connections between the two cultures based on “interests” and then finding common goals to build on?

Posted by E-Ret | Report as abusive

I kind of wonder about this whole piece. Sure it is not a choice between human rights and security, in fact trampling on people’s rights almost always leads to security issues.

But how is this conflated with maintaining current alliances?

The thing about human rights is, they are universal and indivisible. The US most certainly DOES need to get angry with the Saudis in order to have any credibility on human rights. And the blind support for Israel would also have to end.

The idea that illiberal elected regimes are worse than dictatorships seems a little thin. If a country can’t elect a decent regime, then can one really be imposed? Is there anyone let in the world that believes in ‘benevolent dictatorship’? Apparently so.

I do not.

There are a whole load of things the US needs to do to regain credibility as a defender of basic human rights, but for a whole generation of people it is just too late.

This is a project that will take a generation or more. Given the rise of China I am not sure there is that much time.

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

Finally a reasoned study and cogent argument I had despaired of ever seeing an unbiased statement about the region.
So much talk about democracy and human rights all premature and so politically immature.

I have repeatedly railed against such naïve and self defeating US policies.

First stabilize the country then push for the values we all hold dear.
In Egypt there are already premature cries of violation of right to free speech because a copycat satirist had started taking the mickey; another crying foul for being prevented from voicing criticism.

” It is difficult to clear the swamp when you are up to your ass in alligators.”
Egyptians like many other ‘developing’ nation are fickle.
They parrot criticism and know little of sarcasm. There is no shortage of saboteurs who love to distort and undermine.

The recent change of heart in US policy as evidenced by Kerry’s speech in Egypt is welcome.

The US and the West have been given a rare and only second chance.
No thanks to them but to the extremist Islamists whose miscalculation, arrogance, greed and wanton actions in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have alarmed the world.
They showed their true colours through their overeager attempt to Islamize. They felt they had won when they took power in Egypt and proceeded to divide the country.
This behaviour finally rang alarm bells.

The West is finally moving; but this is their one and only chance.
Fanatics don’t make the same mistake twice

Let the world beware.

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive

For beginning: the most important question is; is US really concerned about democracy and human rights !!
The answer is “NO”.
About human right,civil Liberties, .At least recently, we saw how US spy till on its allies like Germany, and also Americans !!! Also we had seen how its behavior in Iraq, and , Abu Gharib/Guantanamo prisons.
As the wide/international range, we see the american Veto in UN security council , I think this is the only way US loves democracy to force its views/power.
Back to the middle east, for very long time, there is no democracy, human right. But USA & Israel are fine. They got what them want !!!!! Oil/Gas , Influence in the area, good markets … etc.
Real democracy in the middle east, for sure will extract other people, other values, other ideologies … Real people from real streets. For very long time, there is only Arabic presidents & kings views, Which most of them are the reflections of USA/Israel views.
That’s what US doesn’t like. Maybe other people be against its influence in the area, as I think these is them rights also, to help them own countries.
By the way, I don’t know how is “..has been the removal of the rights of secular citizens.” happened !! like what?!! this is really should be a very good case study !!

Posted by Mahmoud-Eg | Report as abusive

US policy will fail in the region. And it is because of our supposed “allies”.
One greatest ally (if you want to call them that) is an apartheid state sponser of terror (Isreal).
Our second greatest ally is an absolute monarchy that funds wahhabism and al-Qaeda all over the world (Saudi Arabia)
Our third best ally is a military junta (Egypt).
And then of course our other “close” Muslim ally is a country run by the army and intelligence services, harbors our number one enemy, bin Laden, and gives haven to some of the most violent terrorists while receiving military aid from us to fight the terrorists they give safe haven to (Pakistan).

It is time that we seriously re-evaluate who our allies are. We should not be enemies with Iran, Iraq, or Syria. We should consider Isreal, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan as our enemies and adjust our foreign policy accordingly.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

How the heck can the US be the moral arbiter of the world? We are seeing our own human rights, freedoms and liberties curtailed daily and our own government spying on us, the citizens and legal immigrants, without due cause.

Way back when, I was taught to clean up my own backyard before criticizing another for the mess in his.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive