American values need to be part of U.S. policy in the Middle East

Martin Indyk is one of the best scholars and American diplomats towards the Middle East I have ever known, one of the best bosses I’ve ever had, and a great bloke as well. But his proposed dichotomy for U.S. policy towards the Middle East, as reflected in a recent Order from Chaos blog entry, doesn’t work for me. I  disagree strongly with an analysis that says EITHER we must cozy up to the Iranians OR we must partner so closely with the Sunni strongmen of the region that we effectively give them a pass on their own internal governance and human rights policies. At least, I read his proposal that way—and I can’t live with it.

Leave aside the Iran option, which strikes Ambassador Indyk himself as ultimately unworkable. The more serious proposal is to work with the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, and others against ISIS, against Iran’s nuclear program, against Mideast instability more generally, and, at least in theory, in favor of Israeli-Palestinian peace. At one level, it all sounds reasonable. None of these regimes, whatever its warts, is nearly as aggressive or flawed as Tehran’s; most are willing to work with us in service of mutual interests. Indeed, we should work with them—to a degree, and within bounds.

But to say that much is simply to repeat much of the logic of U.S. policy towards the Middle East for the last half century. And as former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuasively argued after 9/11, it was that approach that helped produce al Qaeda and all the other problems we have been living with this century. It doesn’t work. We know that empirically. It also produced the Arab spring. To be sure, the Arab spring has not produced stability. But that doesn’t mean we should go back to the policies that helped spawn the revolts in the first place. Indeed, the failure of the Arab spring is all the more reason to think more creatively.

Some of the policies followed by these regimes are not only unconscionable and unethical, they are ultimately unacceptable in light of U.S. interests. Leave aside the anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-Shia, and anti-woman biases of Riyadh for the moment. One does not have to invoke western human rights principles to be wary of this government—and to see the need to openly oppose it at times. Saudi support for Wahhabism helped produce the strength of the takfiri/jihadist movement, including al Qaeda and many of its affiliates, not only in the Arab world, but in South Asia too. Saudi intolerance for any Shia-majority government in Iraq helped rescue defeat from the jaws of victory there after the surge. Even if Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki may have been poisonous under the best of circumstances, the Saudis treated the whole concept of a Shia-led government as anathema. Their disapproval was plain for all to see, and may have contributed to Maliki’s ultimate return to Shia chauvinism after a couple years of governing more inclusively.

To be sure, President Sisi in Egypt has done some acceptable things—most recently in bombing ISIS targets in Libya. We can work with him in some areas. And the “people’s coup” that led to his taking of power from President Morsi in 2013 was understandable in many ways.

But his treatment of any and all dissidents, moderate Muslim Brotherhood members, and political opponents since taking power is neither understandable nor acceptable. It violates core American values. It amounts to a pattern of serious human rights abuses—especially against all the Brotherhood members still held in jail without trial.  

Sisi is trying to put a lid on a pressure cooker of internal foment that will not be contained just through force—President Mubarak’s long tenure proved that. The Brotherhood deserves a chance to reorganize and to reinvent itself, within clear constitutional limitations, and with clear vigilance and monitoring from the state’s military. But it was not a horribly violent movement when in power, and its behavior should not be equated with heinous groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, or ISIS. Yet that is how Sisi is effectively treating the Brotherhood and related movements.

American values and principles need to be a part of U.S. policy towards the region. I am not suggesting a cutoff in all aid to Egypt, an end to purchases of Saudi oil, or any other extreme measure. I am simply saying that we need to find some way—as Martin Luther King said, as Barack Obama likes to say—to try to bend history in the direction of justice, even if it takes time. Doing so may also bend history in the favor of a more stable Middle East. A return to former approaches will not.

What to do, then? Let’s give Egypt $1 billion instead of $1.4 billion and tell them the rest will flow once they figure out a path towards clemency, or at least gentle punishment, for nonviolent Brotherhood members. Let’s tell the Saudis that a new power-sharing arrangement in Syria is going to involve some Alawites they don’t like—because that’s the reality of the situation anyway. Let’s remind the Bahrainis that we have other options for where to base the 5th Fleet if they don’t allow a greater role for their dispossessed over time.  

America is in a strong position in the Middle East. There is no alternative to our leadership, and our military backstopping, for regimes in the region. They know it. We don’t need to threaten them or desert them. But the idea of simply sallying up to their side is not a creative or promising policy. We have done better in places ranging from South Korea to Afghanistan to much of Latin America—places where we remained moderately friendly to a number of governments without giving them any blank check for whatever behavior they might be tempted to engage in domestically or regionally. And we can do better in the Middle East as well.