How the U.S. Can Get Smart about Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in the Middle East

September 27, 2021 | David Pollock and Robert Satloff
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Considering the current state of the region and the policy mistakes of the recent past, David Pollock and Robert Satloff outline a strategy that is “both virtuous and realistic” for defending human rights and encouraging democratization in a region plagued by autocracy, chaos, and brutality. They argue that “in the long run, more democratic, tolerant, and inclusive governments are likely to be better at defending themselves, and more reliable and effective security partners for the United States.”

It is . . . essential to pursue progress [on issues of human rights and democracy] in ways that complement, rather than contradict, . . . security, stability, and conflict resolution. This coordinated approach should apply, for example, to Arab countries that make peace with Israel: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, and others that may join the list. It should apply as well to partners that play positive roles in resolving other regional conflicts, as in Yemen, Libya, or Syria.

Great Power competition is [itself an] intersection of this broader agenda with Middle East regional realities. Governments drawn to authoritari­anism rather than models based on democracy or individual liberties may more readily align with China or Russia, and vice versa. Conversely, Chinese or Russian economic and strategic inroads in the region will be more likely to support authoritarianism than democracy or human rights.

But, Pollock and Satloff emphasize, modest goals and prudent methods are necessary, and they provide some pertinent guidelines:

Don’t be harder on U.S. allies than on adversaries. A common complaint against U.S. campaigns for democracy and human rights abroad is that they appear selective and even hypocritical, targeting friendly governments while tolerating worse abuses by unfriendly ones. In part, this reflects the reality that American aid, which may be brandished as leverage in these encounters, is naturally directed toward U.S. allies and not adversaries. But it is essential, for the sake of American credibility and effec­tiveness, to demonstrate in words and deeds that the United States can fairly balance its posture toward both sets of foreign powers. In practice, this means that Washington must be exceedingly wary of using the cudgel of foreign-aid cuts as an instrument of pressure, even on behalf of laudable democracy or human-rights objectives.

Start with basic individual freedoms, then consider larger political reforms. Human rights and democracy go together, but they are not the same. Civil liberties, including freedom of expression, religion, and association, are the building blocks of liberal democracy—as opposed to the possible “tyranny of the majority.” In the contemporary Middle East, there is much work to do on these fundamental personal rights, without risking either revolution or repression that might follow major political upheaval.

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