Middle East autocrats sigh with relief: US signals Democracy Summit will not change policies

The United States signaled ahead of next week’s Democracy Summit that it is unlikely to translate empty words into adherence to human rights and democratic values ​​in the Middle East into a policy that demonstrates seriousness and commitment.

In A declaration, the State Department said the December 9-10 summit would “present an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and address the greatest threats democracies face today through collective action.” . The State Department said prior to the summit, it consulted with government experts, multilateral organizations and civil society “to solicit bold and actionable ideas” on “defending against authoritarianism,” “promoting the respect for human rights “and the fight against corruption.

Over 100 countries Along with representatives of civil society and the private sector expected to attend the summit, only Israel is in the Middle East and only eight are majority Muslim states. These are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Albania, Iraq, Kosovo, Niger and Maldives.

US President Joe Biden has made the competition between democracy and autocracy a pillar of his administrative policy and placed it at the heart of the US rivalry with China.

We are in a contest … with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century, ”Biden said.

Yet recent statements from the Pentagon and a White House official have suggested that, despite noble words, US Middle East policy is likely to maintain long-standing support for the region’s autocratic regime in the belief. that it will provide stability.

The popular uprisings of the past decade that toppled the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon suggest that putting a lid on the pot was not a solution. This is true even though the achievements of the uprisings were either reversed by the Gulf-backed counterrevolutionary forces or failed to bring about real change.

Certainly, the Gulf states have recognized that keeping the pot covered is no longer enough. As a result, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have developed plans and policies that meet the aspirations of young people with economic and social reforms while suppressing political freedoms.

The United States appears to be banking on the success of these reforms and regional efforts to manage conflicts so that they do not spiral out of control.

On this basis, the United States maintains a policy which falls far short of defending human rights and democracy. It is a policy which, in practice, does not differ from Chinese and Russian support for the autocracy in the Middle East. The United States’ continued public and private references to human rights and democratic values ​​and occasional small steps like limiting arms sales does not fundamentally change things.

The choice of the United States’ partners either when it comes to responding to popular uprisings and facilitating the political transition. Faced with the revolt in Sudan that overthrew President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and a military coup in October, the Trump and Biden administrations have turned to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. While Israel is a democracy, neither of the American partners favors democratic solutions to governance crises.

White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk reported this in an interview with The National, the UAE’s flagship newspaper, immediately after a security summit in Bahrain which brought together officials from around the world. U.S. officials led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought to use the conference to reassure U.S. allies that the U.S. is not turning its back on regional security.

McGurk said the United States had drawn conclusions from the “hard lessons learned” and was getting “back to basics”. The bottom line, McGurk said, in a nod primarily to Iran but potentially also Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, involved getting rid of “regime change policies.” He said the United States would focus on “the foundations for building, maintaining and strengthening our partnerships and alliances ”in the Middle East.

Mr McGurk’s statement of a back-to-basics policy was reinforced this week with the release of a summary of the Review of the Pentagon’s Global Posture, suggesting that there would be no significant withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region during Mr. Biden’s first years in office.

The notion of Back to basics resonates with Washington’s foreign policy elite liberals. Democracy in the Middle East is no longer on their agenda.

“Instead of using American power to remake the region… policymakers need to embrace the more realistic and achievable goal of establishing and preserving stability,” said Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations expert for the Middle East even before Mr. Biden took office. What Washington needs is not a “war on terror” based on visions of regime change, democracy promotion and “winning hearts and minds”, but an approach. realistic focused on intelligence gathering, police work, multilateral cooperation and judicious application of violence where necessary. ,” he added.

Mr Cook went on to say that a realistic US policy in the Middle East would involve “containing Iran, retooling the fight against terrorism, reducing its counterproductive side effects, reorganizing military deployments to put the ’emphasis on protecting sea lanes and reducing the United States’. Israeli relations to reflect the relative strength of Israel.

The United States is in good company in its inability to put money in its mouth when it comes to human rights and democratic values.

The same can be said for European nations and Indonesia, the most populous Muslim majority state and democracy in the world. Indonesia projects itself directly and indirectly through Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, as the only major proponent of a moderate interpretation of Islam that embraces unreserved human rights, pluralism and religious tolerance.

This did not prevent Indonesia from allegedly give in to a Saudi threat not to recognize Indonesian Covid-19 vaccination certificates from pilgrims to holy cities of Mecca and the media if the Asian state voted for an extension of a United Nations investigation into human rights violations in the nearly seven-year war in Yemen.

Likewise, Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates on cooperation in religious matters even though the UAE’s version of moderate but autocratic Islam defends values ​​that reject freedoms and democracy.

The agreements were part of a much larger package of economic, technological and public health cooperation fueled by US $ 32.7 billion in Emirati investments planned in Indonesia.

The reluctance of the Biden administration, according to a long list of former US presidents, to do much more than lip service to the promotion of human rights and democratic values ​​is reminiscent of the definition of Albert Einstein’s insanity like “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

President George W. Bush and his then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice recognized two decades ago that jihadist violence and the 9/11 attacks were in part the result of failed states. United to defend their values. However, they failed in their efforts to do something, just like Barak Obama.

It is not just autocracies in the Middle East and other regions that are paying the price. The United States and Europe too. Their refusal to integrate their ideals and lofty values ​​into effective policies is increasingly reflected at home in national racial, social and economic fault lines and the anti-migrant sentiment that threatens to tear the fabric of democracy apart. his heart.

The backlash of ignoring Mr. Einstein’s maxim and recognizing the cost of saying one thing and doing another is not just a loss of credibility. The backlash is also the rise of isolationist, authoritarian, xenophobic, racist and conspiratorial forces that challenge the values ​​in which human rights and democracy are rooted.

This raises the question of whether the time, energy and money invested in the Democracy Summit could not have been better invested in solving problems at home. Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh got it right, noting that “building democracy is almost entirely domestic work. “

It is a message that has not escaped the opponents of democracy. In what should have been a warning that hollow declaratory events like the Democracy Summit are not the answer, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told the United Nations General Assembly last September: “The hegemonic system of the United States has no credibility, inside or outside the country.”

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