Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement last week before Congress that the United States was seeking to remove human rights conditions from U.S. aid to Egypt may have disappointed and unnerved the human rights community. But anyone watching the evolution of President Obama’s Middle East policy can hardly have been surprised.
Gone are the heady days of the 2011 Arab Spring, when the President talked about being on the right side of history and — to apply Obama’s own campaign trope — supporting the forces of hope and change.
The administration has learned the hard way what the fourth-century Roman historian Tacitus knew: The first day after the death of a bad emperor is always the best day. And so it was with the Arab Spring. Ousting authoritarians was the easy part. Creating better government proved to be a lot more difficult.
Tunisia alone managed to create a polity with a chance to pursue serious reform and power-sharing. For the rest, fragmentation or repression or both took hold. In Egypt, traditional forces — the military and the Islamists — competed for power and crowded out or repressed the unorganized forces of change that did not have the wherewithal to provide good or stable governance.
After flirting with the Islamists in Egypt and alienating the military — which seized power with a good deal of popular support — the Obama administration was forced to correct course and accept the inevitable, moving to a more pragmatic and accepting approach, at odds with its past idealistic rhetoric.
It seems to have decided that now — with the Middle East in a sort of regional meltdown — is not the wisest time to put issues of human rights and transparent governance at the center of its relationships with regional partners. Indeed, as politically incorrect as it might sound, the Obama administration seems to have reached the conclusion that in this turbulent environment, a bad or imperfect state is better than no state at all. And here’s why:
Anyone who was expecting a Hollywood ending to the Arab Spring in 2011 ought to have gone to the movies instead. In a few short years, the region has deteriorated to a degree that has stunned even annoyingly negative veteran Middle East analysts like me.
Libya, Syria and Yemen are in varying degrees of fragmentation. And where Arab states aren’t collapsing, they are marked by a high degree of dysfunction. In Iraq, Lebanon and of course Egypt, the political and economic challenges are structural and enduring. Forget good governance — the issue is whether or not these entities can provide for the basic needs of their peoples, control their territory and remain stable.
The Arab kings have survived relatively unscathed, but they face their own set of challenges. Saudi Arabia, for example, America’s most important partner in the Gulf, faces a growing challenge from depressed oil prices, which put at risk the womb-to-tomb benefits that partly account for its stability.
The administration’s move toward pragmatism is hardly a major reversal in U.S. Middle East policy.
For 50 years the United States has dealt with authoritarian Arab leaders and looked the other way on matters of human rights and corruption. Working as Middle East negotiator at the State Department in the 1990s, I well remember how we ignored Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s arbitrary rule — the state security courts, the absence of due process — because we needed his cooperation in the peace process. And the Israelis were only too happy to do so as well.
And now the U.S. looks away in regard to human rights violations in Egypt and Bahrain, and Saudi abuses — even war crimes — in the war against the Houthis in Yemen. And let’s not forget Iraq, where, despite the government’s mistreatment of the minority Sunni population, Washington has not conditioned assistance on improvement in governance or respect for human rights.
In a way, the United States is reverting to form, partly because of the fear of regional instability and partly because it realizes that it lacks the leverage to reform these states. With the Saudis and Gulf states willing to bankroll Egypt, what’s the point of threatening to cut aid — particularly when Washington needs Arab-state cooperation?
As Kerry said to Congress: “Let me ask you: Who has leverage? Who are they going to listen to? Where do they think their help is coming from?”
It’s the cruelest of ironies that the United States — which once held such high democratic hopes for the Arab Spring — now finds itself dependent once again on the authoritarians.
This time, though, it’s even more complicated: The Egyptian, Saudi and Bahraini governments don’t trust the administration fully because of the support and encouragement — perceived or otherwise — it gave to the Arab Spring. And there is also the perception that the Obama administration acquiesced in Iran’s growing influence in the region, which has also strained ties.
The fact is, as the region melts down and nonstate actors like ISIS threaten, the United States is more dependent on Arab strongmen it can neither abandon nor reform. The final blow to the human rights agenda would be if America were to decide that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — despite being the major cause of the Syrian civil war — is now part of the solution.
That’s far from inevitable. But Russian and Iranian influence plus the need to end the violence in Syria might well compel the administration to accept Assad’s presence for much longer than it had hoped.
Previous deals with strongmen from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority worked quite effectively for a good many years to protect U.S. interests. The danger is that reliance on the authoritarians sows the seeds of the very instability the United States seeks to prevent.
So for now, it appears the United States is stuck in a highly combustible region it can neither depart from nor transform, that is likely to reflect contradiction and hypocrisy — not just in the policy of our authoritarian partners, but in the policy of the United States as well.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.