U.S. Policy in the Middle East Should Fulfill the Promise of Years of Hopeful Rhetoric

As the Obama Administration nears the end of its term, it’s time to assess its impact on human rights in a region that has long been the source of many policy challenges to the U.S. government. It is hard not to conclude that U.S. human rights and democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East, deemed a “top priority” by President Obama in May 2011, have been a failure.

As Stephen McInerney notes, the Obama Administration will leave behind “a legacy of continuing close ties with the region’s repressive governments, while reducing assistance for democracy, human rights and governance.” Unsurprisingly, this reversion to the failed policies of the past has not produced the desired results, and the new administration will need a radically different approach.

Rebuilding the conflict ridden societies of the Middle East, scarred by decades of authoritarianism and increasingly beset by polarizing sectarian conflict, is a necessary step for the United States to restore confidence in its ability to be a global human rights leader and to push back against fear and hatred.

For the past fifteen years, successive U.S. presidents and senior administration officials have spoken extensively, often eloquently, about the importance of promoting human rights and democratic governance in the Middle East. It has been one of the positive trends in U.S. foreign policy that a link between denying human rights and instability has increasingly informed policy statements, to the point that President Obama said in 2015, when introducing his multilateral countering violent extremism (CVE) initiative, “the link is undeniable. When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied … it feeds violent extremism.”

Ten years earlier, President George W. Bush made a similar argument in his second inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Sadly, there is a striking disconnect between high-level rhetoric that portrays human rights promotion as a core national interest and an essential, integral element of national security strategy, and policy implementation that, in practice, views human rights as “strategically tertiary.”

The closest U.S. allies in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and NATO partner Turkey, have all experienced a substantial deterioration in human rights conditions in recent years, and U.S. protests and advice have not been heeded.

Some analysts conclude that U.S. pressure will not persuade allies to modify their behavior if they have decided that repression is necessary for their own survival, and calls for upholding human rights will only alienate friendly governments. They point to the current strained U.S. relations with Cairo and Riyadh to support their arguments.

Administration officials like to say that they have limited leverage when it comes to promoting human rights in another country, which provides a convenient excuse for not trying very hard.

But, what if the rhetoric of senior U.S. leaders is right? What if repression, corruption, and disregarding the rule of law really do fuel violent extremism? What if “pursuing stability at the expense of democracy” really is self-defeating?

The experience of the last few years since the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which shook the authoritarian state system throughout the Arab region in 2011, indicates that resurgent authoritarianism will not restore the repressive stability that had prevailed over previous decades. Severe repression in Egypt has been accompanied by a sharp increase in terrorism and incidents of political violence, which are now far more frequent than they were under President Mubarak.

There is a heavy reputational cost for the United States giving its support to repressive governments.  People who suffer misrule at the hands of dictators come to resent those who provide them with the means to persist in their repression. The violations perpetrated by western backed repressive rulers throughout the region are a propaganda bonus exploited by violent extremist groups to recruit followers and spread fear and instability throughout the world.

The limitations of military power as a response to violent extremism are all too clear. Drones and airstrikes may kill terrorists, but they do not address the underlying grievances that fuel continuing terrorism. As long as millions of young men across the region have little hope for a better future, groups like ISIS will not be short of recruits. The next U.S. administration must make it a first priority to provide that hope.

Just a fraction of the trillions of dollars the United States has spent on military engagement in the region since 2001 could initiate the type of major multilateral stabilization and reconstruction effort that the region needs, and that only the United States has the capacity and convening power to lead. Before he leaves office, President Obama should signal U.S. support for peaceful democratic change in the region by carrying out a state visit to Tunisia.


Published on August 1, 2016


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