U.S. Dilemma: Middle East Democracy & Human Rights

Conflict in the Middle East (photo: istock by Getty Images)

Key Points:

  1. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly its efforts to promote democratization, is replete with contradictions and failures. The article argues that the United States faces a fundamental problem in its attempts to balance its strategic interests with its promotion of democracy in the region.
  2. President Biden's plans to support democracy and human rights in the Middle East are expected to face skepticism, serious doubts, and potential rejection from pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders in the region..
  3. The U.S.'s policies on regional issues, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and its bias in favor of ruling elites further undermine the credibility of its proposals to promote democracy in the Middle East. 
  4. Arab public opinion towards U.S. policies in the Middle East is overwhelmingly negative, according to Arab opinion surveys cited in the article. The surveys indicate that a majority of Arabs disapprove of U.S. foreign policy, view both Israel and the United States as threats to regional security, and oppose recognizing Israel. The article emphasizes the need for the U.S. to consider Arab public opinion and address its blind spots in order to improve the credibility and effectiveness of its policies in the Middle East.

A May 27, 2021 article by the famous Carnegie Endowment for International Peace highlighted the contradictions of American foreign policy in the Middle East under the above heading. It concluded that the United States suffered from a fundamental problem in its attempts to promote democratization in the Middle East. And that President Biden’s plans to promote democracy and support human rights in the Middle East will face longstanding concerns, serious doubts, and perhaps total rejection from pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders across the region.

The article said the U.S. attempt to revive discourse on democratization raises questions on how they will be balanced against long-standing strategic interests in relation to Arab governments. The U.S. faces two problems regarding the credibility of its proposal to promote democracy in the region: its policies on regional issues, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and its bias in favor of ruling elites.

The article  pointed out the cynicism many Arabs feel regarding U.S. policies in the Middle East, which is confirmed by the strident U.S. Defense of Israel and its “right to defend itself” to the extent of blocking UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza when Israel’s excessive use of force killed many Palestinian civilians. For many Arabs, the normalization agreements of several Arab states with Israel are not only in opposition to the Palestinian cause, but they also undermine incentives for Israel to end the occupation of Palestine. These agreements allow Israel to continue building settlements, which violate Palestinian rights.

Subsequent to this on January 4, 2023, the Arab Center in Washington released its evaluation of U.S. policy in the Middle East saying: “The first two years of the Biden administration, although short, have offered insight into the ways in which the reality of governing can clash with declared hopes and high-minded rhetoric about aims in foreign policy and relations with the Middle East. President Joe Biden campaigned on an agenda of ensuring accountability for human rights abusers in the MENA region and promoting democracy. But he has so far failed to live up to the discourse of his campaign and demonstrated a clear preference for continuing to see America’s interests through the lens and demands of relations with authoritarian regimes that violate human rights and democratic principles. Just as important, two years of the Biden administration have failed to check Israel’s severe and often illegal policies and practices against Palestinians under its military occupation, policies that are expected to become even more flagrant in the future given the ascendance of a far-right, religious-nationalist government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

The Middle East exception of American policy does not go unnoticed in the Arab world. Citizens of the region react to the U.S. failed strategy and blatant hypocrisy.  A 2019-20 Arab opinion survey examined public opinion regarding attitudes towards the Palestine issue across 13 Arab countries: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Tunisia. The fieldwork was carried out by an overall team of 900 individuals, equally balanced by gender, who conducted 69,000 hours of face-to-face interviews. The sample size ranged between 1,500 and 2,500 respondents in each country and was 50% female and 50% male in all countries. With an aggregate sample of 28,288 respondents, it remained the largest public opinion survey in the Arab world. The results showed an overwhelming majority of 88 percent would disapprove recognition of Israel and only 6 percent support it. When asked to elaborate on the reasons for their positions, respondents who were opposed to ties between their countries and Israel cited Israel’s colonial and expansionist policies as well as racism towards the Palestinians and persistence in expropriating Palestinian land. In addition, one-half of those who supported recognizing Israel responded it should be conditioned on establishing a free and independent Palestinian state.

The survey asked the Arab respondents to look at specific foreign policy areas, a vast majority of 81 percent of respondents held negative views of U.S. policy towards Arab countries. According to this survey, 89 percent of Arabs believe Israel poses a threat and 81 percent believe the U.S. poses a threat while 66 percent (a combined total) of the Arab public considers both Israel and the United States - the two countries pose the largest threat to security in the Arab world.

The Carnegie article also described the failure of the U.S. to uphold human rights in the Middle East. President Biden and the Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken have repeatedly stated that advancing democratic norms and fundamental human rights will constitute “the center of U.S. foreign policy” in all countries of the Middle East, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The administration’s official statement says that the United States encourages all of its partners to make every effort to improve the way they treat their citizens.  With regard to Saudi Arabia, the statement said the U.S. has taken steps to investigate and address both internal and external human rights violations and expressed concern over the arrests and ill-treatment, especially women activists. Secretary Blinken in a statement released on February 26, 2021, called “Accountability for Murder of Jamal Khashoggi ” and announced a visa restriction ban after him,  the ban targeted 76 Saudi citizens believed to be directly involved in serious counter-dissident  activities or suspected of involvement in the murder of Khashoggi.

All President Biden did was to make a phone call to King Salman of Saudi Arabia affirming “ the importance the United States places on universal human rights and rule of law” and “ noted positively’ the release of several Saudi activists, including prominent Saudi women’s right activist, Loujain al-Hathloul. The conversation seemingly closed the discussion of the murder of Khashoggi between the two governments, and no public reference has been made regarding the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his flagrant violations of human rights. Even the U.S. State Department in its human rights report fails to mention the role of Bin Salman in his killing.

The Biden administration’s decision to forgo sanctions on the Crown Prince reinforces the belief that the United States has no scruples granting immunity to perpetrators of human rights violations when they are part of the ruling elite or their families. The U.S. fails the test of impartiality when it comes to its strategic partners in the region.

Seeing all this, the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. said, “Watching the widespread neglect in Washington of political opinion development in the Arab world, leaves objective observers with the impression that the majority of Arab citizens remain predominantly inactive, marginalized, and uninvolved in the process of governance in their countries.  Arab public opinion, even for those officials who grudgingly acknowledge its existence, remains essentially inconsequential. This blind spot in the American field of vision persists despite the proliferation of dozens of think tanks, research centers, and polling firms and institutions within the United States and the Middle East that focus on Arab public opinion. Unfortunately, this myopic approach quite often degenerates into complete blindness, where Arab opinion becomes totally absent from the official American vision for the region.”

In  confirmation, the Arab Center released the findings of the seventh Arab Opinion Index conducted since 2011 by its affiliated Arab Center for Research and Policy studies in Doha, Qatar on November 16, 2020. The annual poll explored attitudes in 13 Arab countries, representing about 350 million people, about their assessment of the policies followed by foreign powers in the region, including the United States. A sample of 28,288 individuals answered questions on their views of foreign threats to the region, their attitudes towards the Palestinian cause, and their support or opposition to their countries’ diplomatic recognition of Israel.

The findings highlight several issues of specific interest to the U.S. First, American policymakers in Washington should note that in contrast to their official government policies, 58 percent of Arab respondents held negative views of US foreign policy in the region. US policy towards Palestine was opposed by an overwhelming majority – 81 percent of Arab respondents. Second, when asked to access the country that poses the largest threat to their national security and stability in the region, 89 percent of respondents chose Israel, and 81 percent chose the United States. Third, when so many in Washington are convinced Arabs are losing interest in the Palestinian cause, these findings proved the exact opposite. Three-quarters of respondents confirmed that the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs and not simply the Palestinians.

Concerning the issue of recognizing Israel, 88 percent of all Arabs indicated their opposition to it, with only 6 percent expressing support. Those expressing support conditioned the recognition on Israel’s reciprocal recognition of Palestine.

In conclusion, the Arab Center said, “Clearly, the significant resentment of US policies in the Arab world stems from the precise and long-term Arab perception of these policies as articulated and implemented by successive administrations in Washington vis-à-vis conflicts such as those in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, or Iraq. Yet, these policies continue to be formulated without any serious consideration given to indigenous public opinion in this strategic region of the world. It behooves policymakers at the White House and the U.S. Department of State to direct serious attention to their blind spot regarding the demands of the crucially relevant spectrum of public opinion in the Arab world to better access the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. policies in the Middle East.”

Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D. is an author / journalist, and retired faculty from the University of Arizona. He lives in sunny Tucson, Arizona, USA.


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