Contradictions in US Policy between Ukraine and The Middle East


Dr. Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a founding director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and the Global and the National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government, Nakhleh has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

View all articles by Emile Nakhleh

OPINION — The Biden administration is correct in responding 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.

As the Russian war in Ukraine has impacted the Middle East economically and politically, however, Middle Eastern publics are seeing several stark contradictions in how President Biden has approached both regions.

In Ukraine, he has poured billions of dollars in weapons of all kinds to help President Volodymyr Zelensky defend his country in its battle for democracy and freedom and rejection of Putin’s dictatorship and inhumane war. In the Middle East, by contrast, Washington has sold billions worth of weapons to Arab dictators despite their atrocious human rights record and the suppression of their peoples’ civil liberties.

The Biden administration is presenting its support for Ukraine’s freedom of choice and the values for which it stands in the global context of universal values, but has refrained, for political calculations, from extending the same mantel of liberty and freedom to the Middle East. President Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken are feverishly trying to convince Washington’s closest allies and biggest recipients of American weapons in the region to openly and forcefully condemn Putin’s acts of terror in Ukraine.

As a payoff for their support, the Biden administration has turned a blind eye to Arab peoples’ demands for justice and liberty.

Yet, these diplomatic efforts have shown meager success, if at all. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and others have balked at the U.S. anti-Putin campaign in the region. Dubai remains the playground of Russian billionaire oligarchs. Turkey is also welcoming Russian owned super yachts to its ports. Saudi-Russian economic and diplomatic courtship is becoming more visible on the world stage despite American entreaties to the contrary.

The promise that President Biden made at his inauguration early last year about the centrality of human rights to his agenda has all but faded. He continues to coddle Middle East dictators with no tangible regard, beyond rhetoric, for human rights, civil liberties, and democracy. Middle Eastern publics might not be rich or influential, but they are smart enough to see what’s going on. As a Middle Eastern friend of mine told me recently, he and his compatriots see very little difference in the attitude toward Arab dictators between the presidencies of Trump and Biden. Trump used both rhetoric and actions to cozy up to Arab autocrats, Biden has used soft power (rhetoric) to extol the virtues of democratic values but extended hard power support to these same dictators.

Arms sales and military aid worth billions of dollars continue to flow into Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and other Arab and non-Arab countries in the region with little regard for their serial human rights violations, whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, or in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. The continued human tragedy in Yemen is but one example of the glaring contradictions in Washington’s approach to the two regions.

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The on-going massive infusion of American weapons into Ukraine will hopefully help the Ukrainian military defeat the Russian aggression. The huge American arms sales and assistance to Arab countries, on the other hand, will empower Arab autocrats to defeat their own people’s struggle for freedom and human dignity. The moral outrage over Putin’s brutality in Ukraine is driving Biden’s mission in that country and underpinning a global sense of hope that a war weary Zelensky will win over a merciless neighbor.

Arab publics and pro-freedom activists see no hope whatsoever that a victory in Ukraine will constrain their continued suppression. A Ukrainian victory with American assistance will likely, and should, create a moral dilemma for the Biden administration about Washington’s stance on human rights in the Arab world.

While it is true that Ukraine is being invaded by a foreign power and Arab countries are being violated by their own regimes, it makes no difference whether human rights and democratic values are being trampled upon by a foreign dictator or by an indigenous one.

This dichotomy should not be lost on American leaders as they pursue a new strategic paradigm in a post-Ukraine war Middle East. Fig leaves such as the so-called Abraham Accords and the evolving rapprochement between Israel and Gulf Arab regimes cannot and should not erase the contradiction between the United States’ costly and deep commitment to human rights in Ukraine and its luke-warm (mostly rhetorical) advocacy of democratic values in Arab countries.

As the Arab regimes lose their primacy as key actors in the region and see themselves being replaced by three non-Arab states — Israel, Turkey, and Iran — they tend to enact more repressive laws and practices to repress their peoples. These regimes erroneously equate their loss of regional influence with increased repression at home. Shortsightedly, they are suppressing their peoples’ resourcefulness, creativity, and yearning for freedom, thereby curtailing those countries’ ability to grow economically and to innovate technologically.

If creativity and innovation are allowed to emerge, they could empower Arab societies to move forward. Arab peoples, from Lebanon to Algeria, see their countries on a downward economic spiral offering only meager access to business, technology, scientific innovation, and growth. If they become part of the governing process, they could help their leaders regain their lost regional influence and prestige. Conversely, such influence could not be recovered through endemic tyranny.

The recent gathering of Arab foreign ministers as part of a six-way summit with the U.S. secretary of state and the Israeli foreign minister in southern Israel reflected an alignment against something or some country — for example, Iran and the Houthis — but not for a specific strategic goal that could benefit the peoples of the region. Nor did the gathering represent larger Arab states such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Algeria for example. It’s interesting to note that Egypt’s attendance at the summit came as a second thought lest it be marginalized by the hoopla of Israeli-Arab rapprochement.

The transactional Arab foreign ministers’ meeting did not address Washington’s demands that they adopt a stronger stand against Putin’s war in Ukraine or the humanitarian disaster 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.

Thanks to U.S. military support, Ukraine has a good chance to withstand and potentially defeat Russia’s aggression. The universal ideal of freedom and democracy for which people the world over aspire — whether in Ukraine, Myanmar, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Palestine — should be upheld and defended on principle and not according to cynical political calculations. This ideal is indivisible, not selective; global, not regional; and principled, not subject to political bargaining.

The high moral road the Biden administration has followed in Ukraine should become the guiding principle for America’s relations with Middle Eastern regimes. The pursuit of political interests should not trump the administration’s true commitment to democratic ideals in relations with Arab regimes.

This article by Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh was first published by Responsible Statecraft.

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