Hariri Center Director Michele Dunne and Senior Fellow Amy Hawthorne reflect on US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in the two years since President Barack Obama promised to make it a top priority to support democracy and human rights in the region.
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Eighteen months ago, a sudden eruption of social and political protests across the Middle East took the world by storm. Despite widespread awareness that the mix of economic stagnation, sky-rocketing unemployment, demographic pressure, corrupt and inefficient government, and social and political repression represented a serious threat to the stability of the region few anticipated the magnitude and impact of the so-called Arab Spring.
This failure of imagination reveals the substantial limits of the dominant paradigm employed by the United States, and to a lesser extent its European counterparts, in assessing the quality and reliability of its allies. Bluntly put, a leading principle of US foreign policy in this region of the world has been the "he may be a bastard but he’s our bastard doctrine." Accordingly, regimes with dubious (at best) records in terms of good governance and democracy were strongly supported because of their willingness to cooperate with the US in achieving its national interests. In judging whether these allies would be able to deliver on their promises and in assessing their reliability, policymakers looked to the stability of the regime and of the robustness of its coercive apparatus
The ongoing political and social upheaval in the Middle East highlights the limits of applying the narrow lens of regime security, inviting policymakers to broaden and shift the focus of the analysis by incorporating the notion of human security. The concept of human security, with its focus on the threats that affect the life and liberty of the citizens instead of the regime as an institution, allows formulating a more accurate assessment of the effective stability and reliability of a given ally.
The main consequence of this approach would be the recognition that building a stable partnership with a regime that systematically violates the rights and freedom of its citizens is in fact unlikely to last in the longer term. What's more, such partnership can have immediate negative consequences on the level of popularity of the United States in the region, and it can lead to backlash in the longer term.
There have been signs that the current administration is coming to terms with this notion and beginning to formulate its policies for the MENA region accordingly. For instance, in his May 2011 speech to the Arab world, President Obama declared that promoting reforms in the Arab world is now a primary goal of the administration. Of course these declarations are not enough to eliminate the accusation of applying double-standards with respect to the ongoing Arab Spring, for example by endorsing military force against the Qaddafi regime while refusing to take a clear stance with respect to the protests in Bahrain, but still they do send the message to the region that the list of priorities is changing.
This new outlook should be reflected when engaging with new allies, and it should also permeate in the US's relations with its traditional allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. It is neither easy nor convenient to break off relations built over the course of many decades and deeply grounded on strong material interests of both sides. For example, if we look at US-Saudi relations it is easy to argue that the partnership is very much mutually advantageous. The Americans still need access to the Gulf and its economic and energy resources, while Saudi Arabia still needs effective security support. Similarly, it is also true that an assertive Saudi policy, especially if aimed at Iran, is consistent with Washington's interests. Finally, a serious wedge between Washington and Riyadh would likely limit even further the United States' ability to wield influence in the region.
However, a just balance has to be found between breaking old and advantageous alliances and turning a blind eye and providing a blank check to authoritarian regimes. In the cases of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for instance, preserving the current status quo and ignoring the growing protests can be incredibly expensive for the US in the longer term. In this context, a more cautious approach would argue to maintain the alliance but insert growing "conditionality," insisting on gradual internal reforms.
This same approach had been previously advocated with respect to Egypt under President Mubarak: however the notion of creating a more serious conditionality between proving aid and implementing substantial social and political reforms was basically ignored. Now, after the regime has collapsed, it is time to revive this notion and take it more seriously.
What's more, this conditionality clause should not only be employed when dealing with traditional allies with problematic human rights records, but it should also become part of the US's policy with respect to the new post-Arab Spring regimes.
This principle was recently put to the test, albeit unsuccessfully, in Egypt with a Congressional requirement creating conditionality between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)'s protection of basic liberties and the $1.3 billion in military aid. In the end, however, the executive decided to waive the human rights clause, asserting that Egypt was both a leading partner and a pillar of regional stability and that delaying or conditioning the aid would impair the relationship. In other words, again it seems that the United States might be prepared to turn a blind eye with respect to domestic human rights violation in the name of regime stability.
However, one of the main lessons of the Arab Spring is that this "stability vs. freedom" tradeoff is shortsighted. Instead, a better approach would have been to partially withhold the aid—allowing some of the assistance to begin— as a way to both preserve the relations with the new political authority while showing that there is a real commitment to supporting human rights and locally-determined democracy.
A second important insight gained from looking at the Arab Spring through the lens of human security is to highlight the depth and magnitude of the challenges that the MENA region is facing in its post-revolutionary stabilization phase.
The Arab uprisings, in removing old despotic regimes, have only began to scratch the surface of the problem, indicating that the post-revolutionary phase will be particularly challenging and require deep structural reforms. In turn, this means that it is fair to expect continued upheaval and instability. In addition, this also leads to expect further protests to continue across the region, perhaps affecting countries that we have insofar thought off as immune to the upheaval.
In other words, although until now the Arab Spring has not "hit" some of the main American allies in the Middle East, still this does not mean that the storm as permanently passed. Over time, the monarchs and emirs will not be able to avoid accelerating the pace of reforms, and they will have to respond to the pressures exerted from without and within by going beyond merely cosmetic change. In this sense, it would be in the United States' best interest to play an active role in promoting reforms and increased pluralism.
In sum, the realist tradeoff between morality and national interests in foreign policy is redefined and challenged by the ongoing Arab Awakening. The crumbling of traditional allies considered as stable but yet profoundly unpopular and illegitimate within their own society calls for a drastic rethinking of the paradigm. Turning a blind eye to human rights violations and despotism is not just morally questionable, it is also a bad policy.
Benedetta Berti is a Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University (TAU), a lecturer at TAU and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group. Follow her on twitter: @benedettabertiw
Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former member of Israel's National Security Council.
Photo Credit:Reuters Pictures
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