Last week’s depressing White House announcement that President Barack Obama has lifted the hold on military aid to Egypt again exposed the U.S. government’s myopia in trying to stabilize an increasingly volatile region.
For decades, a succession of American administrations have plied Middle Eastern dictators with weapons in the hope that repressive governments will deliver security. It hasn’t worked. The region is in turmoil in large part because such regimes have prevented the development of the rule of law, independent labor unions, human rights groups, a free media, and other essential parts of civil society.
This time, Obama informed Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that the United States will begin delivering F-16 fighters, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 tank kits. While Obama also raised some human right concerns about “continued imprisonment of non-violent activists and mass trials,” these were clearly not enough of a problem for his administration to withhold the weapons.
It is hard to fathom how further arming the Sisi regime, while disregarding the human rights concerns that the administration had raised when imposing the holds in 2013, will be good for the region or good for U.S. long-terms interests. It undermines those in the country who are pushing for human rights, it fuels anti-Americanism, and it rewards a government that is attacking its civil society.
It’s a mistake oft-repeated. The estimated half a billion dollars in U.S. military aid to Yemen since 2006 clearly hasn’t brought stability to that country. For many years, Washington supported the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for over three decades, smothering dissent and cracking down on the opposition and civil society. The current chaos, sectarianism, and violent extremism are due, in part, to the generations of repression that preceded them. Saudi Arabia currently has a stability of sorts, secured by a reign of torture, floggings, and beheadings. But we know that this sort of security is illusory and can’t be sustained long-term.
What’s odd is that Obama says he understands the principle that strong civil societies provide a secure platform for stable societies, and that countries with strong civil societies make the best partners for the U.S. In September, he said:
Promoting civil society that can surface issues and push leadership is not just in keeping with our values, it’s not charity. It’s in our national interests. Countries that respect human rights – including freedom of association – happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism. So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.
Obama conceded that the biggest threat to the Persian Gulf states was their own repression. Last month, he said, “….just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances….I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”
The contradiction here is clear. Although the president says the right things, his administration regularly undermines itself by supporting oppressive dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere that openly crush their civil societies, increasing the risk to the region and to U.S interests.
Obama’s announcement about restoring Egypt’s military aid came as the Bahraini government is pushing Washington to lift the remaining holds on arms sales to the kingdom, restrictions imposed in 2011 following a violent government response to protests for reform. Last week, in a further move to smother peaceful dissent, the Bahrain government again arrested leading dissident Nabeel Rajab.
Unsurprisingly, arming repressive regimes doesn’t make America popular with the Middle Eastern public. As the Pew Research Center’s July 2014 report revealed, favorable attitudes to the U.S. in Egypt have dived from 30 percent in 2006 to 10 percent last year. “The Middle East is the sole region where anti-Americanism is both deep and widespread,” said the report. No doubt there are other reasons for this unpopularity, but enabling dictatorships with military and political support doesn’t help Washington’s image.
Lifting the hold on arms to the Sisi government is likely to make a terrible situation even worse. The United States needs to find a way to snap out of its delusion that providing Middle Eastern dictatorships with more weapons will bring security to the region. It’s much more likely to do the opposite.