There should be no more Middle East exception in US policy

Dana al-Kurd

Al-Jazeera  /  January 18, 2023

Arab public opinion of the US is low because of its hypocrisy over the issue of democracy. It is time to change that.

Much has been written about the changing role of the United States as a global power. President Joe Biden and his administration have made repeated statements about reclaiming the US position as leader of the “free world” and promoter of democracy. This has come amid growing authoritarian trends across the globe, in part due to the increased influence of countries like Russia and China.

But one facet of American foreign policy and grand strategy seems to remain unaffected by this renewed effort to promote democracy: the US approach towards the Arab world.

The Biden administration seems to be just as lukewarm about democracy in the region as its predecessors. Although it has emphasized the importance of democracy to its foreign policy, it has essentially refused to hold human rights violators in the Middle East accountable – even when this affects American citizens.

Moreover, on the question of Palestine, another issue of importance to Arab nations which is directly related to democracy, the Biden administration has not changed track either. It continues to back the Israeli government, its occupation and apartheid, and its regional policies which undermine local democratic movements. Worse still, despite being critical of the Trump administration, Biden appears to be an enthusiastic supporter of its disastrous concessions to Israel.

The US embassy in Jerusalem remains and will continue to expand on stolen Palestinian land. The statements of “deep concern” over each new display of Israeli fascism at this point do nothing more than evoke expected derision. Most importantly, the US continues to push for an expansion of the Abraham Accords, despite the fact that it is perfectly clear they are nothing more than an authoritarian alliance.

The Middle Eastern exception to the American democracy-promotion strategy remains, and there seems to be little appetite among American decision-makers to apply the same ideas of sustainable global order to this troubled region.

This does not go unnoticed in the Arab world itself. Rulers now fully understand the limitations of heavily relying on their partnership with the US. In Washington, there was much consternation and rending of garments when Saudi Arabia demonstrated alignment with China on a variety of policy issues. Israeli politicians have also expressed their interest in better relations with Moscow, in spite of American kowtowing on the issue of Palestine.

Citizens of the region are also aware of the failed American strategy and blatant hypocrisy. They do not believe that the US is a bulwark against authoritarian forces. That much is apparent from the results of the eighth Arab Opinion Index conducted by the Arab Center Washington DC in 14 Arab countries.

According to the survey report, released earlier this month, the percentage of Arabs who think democracy is the best system of governance for their countries has grown from 67 percent in 2011 to 72 percent in 2022. But that does not mean that they see a role for the US in helping the region achieve democratic development.

Some 78 percent consider the US the biggest source of threat and instability in the region. By contrast, 57 percent think of Iran in these terms and 57 percent of Russia. This is despite the Iranian-backed crackdown on the Tishreen Revolution in Iraq in 2019-20 and its destabilizing role across the region and the Russian bombardment of civilians in Syria over the past seven years.

American policymakers should consider what these numbers imply. The US’s reputation is so bad and so synonymous with hypocrisy that Arab respondents view actors like Iran and Russia as less threatening. But what is worse, perhaps, is how these views have become cemented across generations of Arab citizens.

Those who witnessed or participated in the Arab Spring have internalized disappointment with the American position, which was pro-democracy in rhetoric only and in reality, was supportive of authoritarianism.

Now a new generation of Arabs, who have demonstrated their own capacity for political mobilization, is adopting the same views. The US has maintained policies that are hostile to pro-democracy forces in the region, whether in supporting regimes that facilitate repression transnationally or backing Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.

The Arab world continues to be rife with conflict, Arab regimes are largely failing to provide basic services and guarantee rights, and Arab citizens understandably see no benefit to American leadership on the world stage. Such widespread attitudes may not only undermine American interests in the region, but also pose a risk to the broader international system.

As American legitimacy deteriorates, this leaves a vacuum for other powers – such as Russia and China – to advance their interests and their anti-democracy ideologies, both in the Arab world and across the globe. Moreover, the prospect of democracy becomes less attractive to nations when the primary advocate for such an idea worldwide, the US, is seen as hypocritical. And as democracy recedes, this bodes poorly for the level of violence, conflict, and instability we will see in the future.

The last 12 years of authoritarian diffusion, refugees, and sectarian conflict should have taught us that instability in the Arab world can reverberate across the globe. But the American establishment has continued to wash its hands clean of its role in the Middle East while trying to stabilize it on shaky premises – by enabling authoritarian regimes and practices and maintaining the status quo in the region’s worsening conflicts.

The results of the Arab Opinion Index should be a red flag for Washington: There must be no Middle Eastern exception to US policies on global security and prosperity.

Dana al-Kurd – assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond (United States)