Disregarding Universal Values in Middle East Policy Will Bring More Instability

Early indications suggest that the incoming Trump Administration will shape U.S. policy in the Middle East around closer cooperation with regional authoritarian regimes. This would be in keeping with President-elect Trump’s oft-stated admiration for authoritarian leaders, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and with his inclination for the United States to be less engaged around the world and more focused on domestic concerns.

In broad strokes, this approach would not differ much from the Obama Administration’s. After a brief interlude of support for the Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the region in 2011, the Obama Administration reverted to a more traditional coexistence with authoritarian allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

To the extent that comments from Trump’s advisors can be seen as a guide to future policies, a Trump Administration will be trying to implement a twenty-first century version of the Nixon Doctrine, with the United States prioritizing its core interest, counterterrorism, and especially the fight against ISIS, while leaving local powers, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to maintain stability.

Such an approach is unlikely to succeed.

The major difference from the Obama Administration, and from what a Clinton Administration would have put forward, will be the absence of democracy and human rights promotion. The Trump approach has been described as extreme realism or realpolitik where U.S. national interests can be pursued without reference to values.

This would be a departure from the bipartisan approach of U.S. administrations for decades, and from the precepts of the U.S.-led postwar world order. This approach has brought decades of peace and prosperity to Europe and North America, and notable progress for people in other regions of the world, resting on the recognition of universal human rights as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Regional autocrats, like Egypt’s President Sisi and Turkey’s President Erdogan, have welcomed Trump’s election because they have grown weary of constant U.S. criticism of human rights practices and governance standards, which they have characterized as unwarranted interference and even support for their armed opponents.

Democrats will now have years to regret that they failed to do more to support a more hopeful alternative to Arab authoritarianism when they had the chance in 2011 after mass protest movements calling for human dignity swept away long-established authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Into the vacuum stepped resurgent authoritarians and violent Islamist extremists, including groups like ISIS that have planned or inspired terrorist attacks in major Western cities and the United States.

The result has been a reversion to decades of a zero-sum stand-off between authoritarianism and religious extremism that has laid waste to pluralism, tolerance, and basic civil and political rights. This wasteland has been fertile ground for the growth of the violent terrorist groups that have caused great destruction in the Middle East and attacked the West, becoming a major preoccupation of Western policy makers and a priority for the incoming administration.

Advocates for a Middle East policy based on closer cooperation between the United States and traditional authoritarian allies may think that they are turning away from policies of regime change and nation building that Trump has characterized as a disaster. But they conveniently forget it was not the United States that persuaded millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, and Syrians to take to the streets to demand a change from the corrupt repression of their rulers.

It was the people themselves, expressing their natural wish for their inherent dignity and inalienable rights to be recognized by their governments. Neither the people nor their desire for fairer, more representative government have changed.

As the Bush Administration realized in the aftermath of 9/11, authoritarianism does not contribute to regional stability. In fact it helps create conditions that produce threats to vital U.S. national interests. This was true in 2002, and it is even more important now when authoritarian states, like Egypt, are much weaker than they were, and others like Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq are gripped by internal conflicts. There is no authoritarian stability for the United States to ally with.

In recent years, the Obama Administration has developed a broad multi-faceted strategy to combat violent extremism. It built a multinational coalition to both fight against terrorist groups, like ISIS, and address the root causes of extremism, such as disregard for basic rights and freedoms and the inherent dignity of all people.

Over the fifteen years since 9/11 the U.S. government has learned, often through a painful process of trial and error, what works and what is counterproductive in the fight against violent extremism. A narrow reliance on military means to fight terrorism is not sufficient and can sometimes be counterproductive.

The incoming administration should build on the experiences of its predecessors and recognize that it will not be successful in its priority concern of keeping Americans safe from terrorism if it fails to uphold human rights and international law in its own counterterrorism operations. The same is true if it neglects to persistently remind its partners of their absolute need to meet the legitimate demands of their own people for freedom, justice, and dignity.


Published on November 18, 2016


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