POLITICO / November 24, 2020
After backing devastating interventions by Arab states, Washington must focus on advancing the welfare of the region’s citizens—not accommodating the ambitions of its ruling elites.
One evening last November, while reporting on the front lines outside the Libyan capital of Tripoli, I got caught in an Emirati drone bombardment aimed at Libyan pro-government fighters. Alerted by the whirr of the craft overhead, the fighters whisked me inside a concrete villa, and we watched the streaks of the airstrikes from inside. A few days later, a group of foreign and Libyan workers at a biscuit factory east of Tripoli got no such warning. Around midmorning, an Emirati drone fired the first of five missiles through the roof of a storage hangar, destroying some supplies but sparing lives. The panicked workers fled north to an alfalfa field. The missiles followed them.
I arrived on the scene a few hours later to find the smouldering wreckage and impact craters in the field. The corpses had been removed, but the site was strewn with bits of skull and flesh, tufts of hair, and an orphaned sandal. In total, eight civilians died in the bombing, and more than two dozen were wounded.
The remnants of the missiles I saw pointed to the United Arab Emirates as the source—a conclusion that a Human Rights Watch investigation later corroborated. It was one of countless UAE drone strikes on civilian targets that have taken place during the latest phase of Libya’s years-long civil war, adding to similarly devastating attacks in Yemen that the Emiratis launched in tandem with Saudi Arabia.
Both interventions, ostensibly undertaken against terrorists, Islamists and Iranian-backed militias, were enabled and prolonged by President Donald Trump’s feckless deference and signalling to Arab autocrats. Trump might tout his efforts to pull American forces out of the Middle East, but over the course of his presidency he still has wielded American power in the region to detrimental effects: He has blessed the Emirati- and Egyptian-backed war in Libya, vetoed a congressional resolution to end American military aid to the Saudi-Emirati campaign in Yemen, and exhorted Arab states to buy American arms—all of which has destabilized parts of the region and devastated swathes of its citizens.
On top of all this, Trump’s administration announced plans on November 10 for a massive weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates. In return for the Emirates’ signing the Abraham Accords, Trump’s overhyped UAE-Israel normalization agreement, the president wants to sell Reaper armed drones to Abu Dhabi, along with the advanced F-35 fighter aircraft and precision munitions. The delivery could take years, and the deal is already facing opposition on Capitol Hill: On November 18, a bipartisan group in Congress, concerned about the Emirates’ human rights violations in Libya and Yemen, announced they would introduce legislation to block the transfer. Regardless of the outcome of this move, the announcement of the package seems a fitting consummation of Trump’s destructive impulses in the region.
As president, Joe Biden will have to grapple with the aftermath of Emirati adventurism and the habits of other authoritarian Arab allies that have been lavished with American military support, not just under Trump but under previous administrations, as well. Already, there are positive signals that Biden intends to do this by pursuing a policy toward Arab states that is less personalized, less transactional, more values-based and more focused on advancing the welfare of the region’s citizens than accommodating the phobias and ambitions of its ruling elites. For example, some of Biden’s top advisers have expressed scepticism about the sale of offensive American weapons to the Gulf. The early reactions of some Arab regimes to Biden’s election suggest they sense this shift, and they are uneasy.
But even with Biden’s initial good intentions, the institutional inertia of American arms transfers and other forms of military engagement with Arab allies will be hard to escape. This will be true especially if the Biden administration tries to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in which case he could be tempted to use continued military support to reassure jittery Arab regimes. And, fearing that these regimes could increasingly turn to Russia and China as arms suppliers as he tries to shift America‘s energy to other parts of the world, Biden could similarly fall back on weapons sales to compete economically and militarily.
As an Air Force veteran and former attaché who served in several Arab countries, I understand the seductions of military aid as a policy tool. The truth is, its record in yielding beneficial returns for American interests has been mixed. Security sector assistance, including foreign military financing and arms sales, has rarely given the United States leverage over partner regimes, even when American military assistance is withheld or conditioned on those partners changing their behaviour or making reforms. In many instances, the provision of expensive prestige equipment has failed to bolster U.S. allies’ ability to operate truly independently or address the threats they actually face. At its worst, security assistance and cooperation entangle America in the abuses and excesses of Arab regimes.
There are exceptions of course—like struggling, democratic Tunisia, which has benefited from American military equipment, intelligence and training to suppress terrorism and insurgency, defend its borders and respond to the coronavirus pandemic. And, in Lebanon, American assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces has been similarly important for counterterrorism and internal stability. But it is the UAE that usually is heralded as the success story of American investment in foreign militaries in the Middle East, with devotees pointing to the country’s aerial strike and special operations proficiency. “Little Sparta,” to use a timeworn moniker for the Gulf state, has even demonstrated competence in training and equipping its own local proxies.
Yet, armed with these capabilities, the UAE has repeatedly violated long-standing United Nations arms embargos against sending weapons to Libya, bombed civilians, helped to create the world’s worst famine in decades in Yemen, and recruited mercenaries from impoverished, conflict-wracked states, sometimes under deceptive pretexts. Even so, some of the UAE’s advocates, both inside and outside the U.S. government, have asserted that these blundering interventions are forgivable technical errors or growing pains, and that the broken crockery is hardly cause to penalize a plucky Arab ally. What’s more, they maintain, these interventions don’t actively undermine U.S. interests.
From a hard-nosed, realist perspective, perhaps this is true of civilian deaths from Emirati airstrikes, like the ones I saw that afternoon at the Libyan biscuit factory. But even the most jaded realist would agree that American interests are jeopardized by Russia’s ongoing military entrenchment in Libya, an oil-rich state on NATO’s Mediterranean flank. That entrenchment has been abetted by the Emirati intervention, greenlit by Trump last year, and by de facto battlefield collaboration between the Emirates and Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.
To reverse the legacy Trump has left, President-elect Biden’s administration will need to rebalance the militarization of U.S. policy in the region with more robust outreach not just Arab regimes but to parts of Arab society—like the asylum programs and educational exchanges the Trump administration cancelled or curtailed. Biden must also eschew weapons deals with governments that have committed egregious abuses and violations of norms like embargoes, while more forcefully calling out and sanctioning the offenders. At the same time, his administration should redouble its efforts at what the U.S. military calls “institutional capacity building,” the often unglamorous work of advising military staffs and bureaucracies, in part to instil the values of accountability, rule of law and human rights.
Realistically, however, Biden might not significantly shift broader security policies in the region because his administration will be consumed by other demands. These include military and economic competition from China and Russia, and climate change, but especially crises here in the United States: the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn, political polarization and our broken criminal justice system. These domestic imperatives are obviously urgent and entirely appropriate. Getting our affairs in order at home is in fact a necessary first step toward re-establishing our credibility among our Arab allies. As Biden said in his victory speech, “We will lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
This is wise counsel. Having spent years researching and writing about militias in Libya and across the Middle East and their collusion with state institutions, I’ve had shudders of recognition at the mushrooming of armed groups, paramilitaries and vigilantes in the United States, and their sympathetic treatment by police. But a more compelling argument for following Biden’s dictum is a story I was told by a retired American military officer.
Assigned as an attaché to an important Arab ally, this officer was sent to deliver a démarche to government officials against using military grade equipment on civilian protesters. Seated in an office, he spoke firmly to his hosts. But all the while, he was glimpsing across the room at a flat-screen TV.
What he saw made him wince at the hypocrisy of his démarche: live footage from America, of the city police in Ferguson, Missouri, using military-grade equipment against civilian protesters.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former U.S. Air Force officer with tours across the Middle East, and author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya