The glaring contradictions of US policy in Ukraine and the MENA region
Washington sends weapons to Europe to fight for democracy, while American weapons to Arab autocrats help defeat the struggle for freedom, writes Emile Nakhleh.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan at the State Department in Washington, DC on October 14, 2021. [Getty]
The Biden administration is right to respond to reported Russian atrocities by arming Ukraine to defend itself, and is equally justified in assiduously avoiding a direct military confrontation with Putin’s Russia.
However, while the Russian war in Ukraine has had an economic and political impact on the Middle East, Middle Eastern audiences see several glaring contradictions in President Biden’s approach to the two regions.
In Ukraine, he poured billions of dollars in weapons of all kinds to help President Volodymyr Zelensky defend his country in his battle for democracy and freedom and the rejection of Putin’s dictatorship and inhuman war. In the Middle East, by contrast, Washington has sold billions in arms to Arab dictators despite their abysmal human rights record and suppressed civil liberties for their peoples.
The Biden administration presents its support for Ukraine’s freedom of choice and the values it stands for in the global context of universal values, but has refrained, for political calculations, from extending the same mantle of freedom and freedom in the Middle East.
“The Biden administration presents its support for Ukraine’s freedom of choice and the values it stands for in the global context of universal values, but has refrained, for political calculations, from extending the same mantle of freedom and freedom in the Middle East”
President Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken are feverishly trying to convince Washington’s closest allies and the largest recipients of US weapons in the region to openly and forcefully condemn Putin’s acts of terror in Ukraine.
As a reward for their support, the Biden administration has turned a blind eye to Arab peoples’ demands for justice and freedom.
Yet these diplomatic efforts have shown little, if any, success. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and others balked at the US anti-Putin campaign in the region.
Dubai remains the playground of Russian billionaire oligarchs. Turkey also welcomes Russian super yachts to its ports. The Saudi-Russian economic and diplomatic court is becoming increasingly visible on the world stage despite US pleas to the contrary.
The promise President Biden made when he took office early last year about the centrality of human rights to his platform has all but faded away. It continues to pamper dictators in the Middle East with no tangible regard, beyond rhetoric, for human rights, civil liberties and democracy. Middle Eastern audiences may not be wealthy or influential, but they’re smart enough to see what’s going on.
Voices: The Biden administration’s partial restraint on aid to Egypt is nothing more than a coded way for the special US-Egyptian relationship to continue, despite human rights abuses – comments Sam Hamad https://t.co/ZgVpguP391
— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) September 18, 2021
As a friend of mine in the Middle East told me recently, he and his compatriots see very little difference in attitude toward Arab dictators between the presidencies of Trump and Biden. Trump used both rhetoric and actions to get close to Arab autocrats, Biden used soft power (rhetoric) to extol the virtues of democratic values, but extended hard power support to those same dictators.
Arms sales and military aid worth billions of dollars continue to flow to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and other Arab and non-Arab countries in the region , regardless of their serial human rights violations, whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates or the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. The continuing human tragedy in Yemen is just one example of the glaring contradictions in Washington’s approach to the two regions.
The ongoing massive injection of US weapons into Ukraine will hopefully help the Ukrainian military defeat Russian aggression. Huge US arms sales and aid to Arab countries, on the other hand, will enable Arab autocrats to defeat their own people’s struggle for freedom and human dignity.
Moral outrage over Putin’s brutality in Ukraine drives Biden’s mission there and underpins a global sense of hope that a war-weary Zelensky will win over a ruthless neighbor.
Arab publics and pro-freedom activists see no hope that a victory in Ukraine will limit their continued repression. A Ukrainian victory with American help will likely, and should, create a moral dilemma for the Biden administration over Washington’s stance on human rights in the Arab world.
If it is true that Ukraine is being invaded by a foreign power and Arab countries are being violated by their own regimes, it does not matter whether human rights and democratic values are being trampled on by a foreign dictator or by a native.
This dichotomy should not escape US leaders as they pursue a new strategic paradigm in a post-Ukrainian war Middle East. Fig leaves such as the so-called Abraham Accords and the gradual rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf Arab regimes cannot and should not erase the contradiction between the United States’ costly and deep commitment to human rights. rights in Ukraine and their lukewarm (mostly rhetorical) advocacy for democratic values in Arab countries.
“If it is true that Ukraine is being invaded by a foreign power and the Arab countries are being violated by their own regimes, it does not matter whether human rights and democratic values are being violated by a foreign dictator or by a native dictator”
As Arab regimes lose their primacy as key players in the region and are replaced by three non-Arab states – Israel, Turkey and Iran – they tend to enact more repressive laws and practices to suppress their peoples. These regimes mistakenly equate their loss of regional influence with increased repression at home.
Short-sighted, they suppress the ingenuity, creativity and yearning for freedom of their peoples, thereby reducing the ability of these countries to grow economically and innovate technologically.
If creativity and innovation are allowed to emerge, they could enable Arab societies to move forward. Arab peoples, from Lebanon to Algeria, see their countries in a downward economic spiral with scant access to business, technology, scientific innovation and growth. If they were part of the governing process, they could help their leaders regain their lost regional influence and prestige. Conversely, such influence could not be co-opted by endemic tyranny.
The recent meeting of Arab foreign ministers in a six-party summit with the US secretary of state and the Israeli foreign minister in southern Israel reflected an alignment against something or certain countries – for example, Iran and the Houthis – but not for a specific strategic objective that could benefit the peoples of the region.
Nor did the gathering represent major Arab states like Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Algeria for example. Interestingly, Egypt’s participation in the summit was a second thought lest it be sidelined by the hype of Arab-Israeli rapprochement.
The Arab foreign ministers’ transactional meeting fell short of Washington’s demands for a tougher stance against Putin’s war in Ukraine or the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, Syria and Gaza. From an Arab perspective, an unpleasant reality emerged from the gathering: Israel is the real power in the Arab Middle East – economically, militarily, technologically and now diplomatically.
With US military support, Ukraine stands a good chance of resisting and potentially defeating Russian aggression. The universal ideal of freedom and democracy to which the peoples of the world aspire – whether in Ukraine, Myanmar, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Palestine – must be supported and defended on principle and not on cynical political calculations. This ideal is indivisible, non-selective; global and not regional; and principle-based, not subject to political negotiation.
The high moral course that the Biden administration has followed in Ukraine should become the guiding principle of America’s relationship with regimes in the Middle East. The pursuit of political interests should not trump the administration’s genuine commitment to democratic ideals in its dealings with Arab regimes.
Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a senior intelligence officer and director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a modernizing state.
Follow him on Twitter: @e_nakhleh
This article originally appeared on Responsible Statecraft.
The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.