US policy in Middle East seems more self-serving than pro-democracy

Pope Francis and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shake hands during a private audience in 2014 at the Vatican. Accepting an invitation from Egypt's president and top religious leaders, Pope Francis will visit Cairo April 28-29. (CNS photo/Gabriel Bouys pool, via Reuters)

Middle East observers have debated for decades whether the United States is truly interested in spreading American values of freedom and democracy in that region. The seeming disposal of these values by the Trump administration as pertains to autocratic regimes in the Middle East has led to accusations that President Donald Trump has adopted a transactional nationalism where his "America First" approach is not interested in how these regimes treat their people but more so in how they can benefit the United States.

That Trump has taken U.S. foreign policy to its most realpolitik stance in generations is indisputable, but all he has really done is remove the thin veneer of democracy promotion to expose it for the calculation it is part of. Simply put, perceived American interests will always take priority over the spreading of American values in the Middle East. Anytime values have been prioritized, it has been when they do not clash with and contradict these interests.

The Trump administration has quickly translated this realpolitik into action. Human rights conditions on arms sales to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf have been lifted. Turkey's slow slide to an authoritarian presidential system has been ignored because Turkey is key to the American strategy in fighting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and a critical partner in any expanded fight against the Syrian government.

Trump has also warmly welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Washington this month. Sisi, as defense minister, toppled a democratically elected Islamist government in 2013 — which admittedly was evolving into an Islamic dictatorship — and replaced it with a military dictatorship, brutally suppressing any political opposition since taking power.

A brief look at history explains why "stability" has trumped democracy promotion. For about 40 years, the Cold War following World War II shaped U.S. policy in the Middle East. Everything was subsumed in the conflict with the Soviet Union, with many Middle Eastern countries even serving as battlefields for proxy wars between the two superpowers. Promoting democracy was set aside.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — part of which was brought about by their disastrous intervention in Afghanistan — and the creation of new democracies in Eastern Europe gave hope in the Middle East that the United States would now focus on helping transform the assorted Mideast monarchies and dictatorships into democracies. However, this was not to be.

One of the unintended historical consequences of the war in Afghanistan was the unleashing of the genie of militant, extremist Islamism. The same Afghan resistance fighters the United States had trained and armed to fight the Soviet army now turned their attention to the United States. Al Qaeda was born in Afghanistan and was the precursor to ISIS, which was born in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This new "enemy" of militant Islamism was a boon to the Arab regimes that quickly realized they could remain in power and resist real democratic change as long as they served the American interest of fighting the war on terror. However, the regimes lumped all opposition, both militant Islamists and secular opposition, under one umbrella, brutally suppressing all dissent — which only led to a more vicious cycle of increased extremism.

The few encouraging phases of promoting democratization have been quickly quashed by evolving national security interests. President George W. Bush argued that decades of subordinating democracy in favor of stability in the Middle East had yielded neither. Bush sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Egypt to declare that the U.S. was "taking a different course" after previously "pursuing stability at the expense of democracy" in the Middle East. This quickly changed when the Iraq War deteriorated and Egypt's authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, reinvented himself as an ally against extremism.

In 2009, President Barack Obama made human rights a central theme of his famous address in Cairo. "The Obama administration urged Mubarak to resign during the Arab Spring and temporarily froze some military aid to Egypt after Sisi came to power," reports The Atlantic. Aid was quickly resumed as conflict and terrorism spread in the Middle East.

By 2012, the evolving Arab Spring provided another brief flicker of hope that democracy was about to flower in the Middle East. Mass demonstrations in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia led to the toppling of regimes, one of which, Egypt, was a stalwart ally of the United States. While Obama encouraged protesters during the Arab Spring, once it became apparent that Egypt's new democratically elected Islamist government was quickly adopting the same non-democratic practices of the Mubarak era, the tone changed to the Egyptian military "restoring democracy" when it staged a brutal military coup in July 2013.

Is this U.S. realpolitik paradigm sustainable for the long term, both for the Middle Eastern regimes who trample on human rights and for the American interest that allows that? The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that brute and overwhelming military force can suppress human rights and freedom almost indefinitely. No, in the sense that such a suppression can lead to stability and moderation.

The threat of militant Islamism and terrorism is real. But it is a false dichotomy that it is either stability or democracy in the Middle East. If the history of the modern Middle East has taught us anything, it is that the lack of democracy both sustains autocratic regimes and provides fertile soil for the spread of extremism in ever more evolving vicious forms.

Democratization in the Middle East can serve the long-term security and economic interests of the United States. American values and interests can be reconciled. This is a challenge requiring building the foundations of democracy over generations, but this is how terror is finally defeated.

[Ra'fat Al-Dajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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