Op-Ed, 689 words

Doubling Down on Dictatorship in the Middle East

The Arab Spring didn’t stop U.S. support for friendly despots.


For a moment, four years ago, it seemed that dictators in the Middle East would soon be a thing of the past.

Back then, it looked like the United States would have to make good on its declared support for democracy, as millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and others rose up to reject their repressive leaders. Many of these autocrats enjoyed support from Washington in return for providing “stability.”

Yet even the collapse of multiple governments failed to upend the decades-long U.S. policy of backing friendly dictators. Washington has doubled down on maintaining a steady supply of weapons and funding to governments willing to support U.S. strategic interests, regardless of how they treat their citizens.

Four years after Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, for example, the country once again has a president with a military pedigree and an even lower tolerance for political opposition than his predecessor.

MERIP-Egypt-TiTaN Jad

TiTaN Jad/Flickr

Mass arrests and hasty convictions of political activists — over 1,000 of whom have been sentenced to death — have reawakened the fear that Egyptians thought had vanished for good after Mubarak was ousted and democratic elections were held.

When the Egyptian military — led by now-president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi — deposed the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Obama administration wavered about whether it would suspend military aid to Egypt, which U.S. law requires in the case of a coup. Yet despite some partial and temporary suspensions, the U.S. government continued to send military hardware.

Now that Sisi heads a nominally civilian government — installed in a sham election by a small minority of voters — all restrictions on U.S. aid have been lifted, including for military helicopters that are used to intimidate and attack protesters. As Secretary of State John Kerry promised a month after Sisi’s election, “The Apaches will come, and they will come very, very soon.”

In the tiny kingdom of Bahrain, meanwhile, the demonstrations for constitutional reform that began in February 2011 continue, despite the government’s attempts to silence the opposition with everything at its disposal — from bird shot to life imprisonment.

Throughout it all, Washington has treated Bahrain like a respectable ally.

Back in 2011, for instance, just days after Bahraini security forces fired live ammunition at protesters in Manama — an attack that killed four and wounded many others — President Barack Obama praised King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s “commitment to reform.” Neither did the White House object when it was notified in advance that 1,200 troops from Saudi Arabia would enter Bahrain to clear the protests in March 2011.

Since then, there’s been a steady drip of troubling news. A State Department report from 2013 acknowledged that Bahrain revokes the citizenship of prominent activists, arrests people on vague charges, tortures prisoners, and engages in “arbitrary deprivation of life.” (That’s bureaucratese for killing people.)

And what have the consequences been?

Back in 2012, international pressure forced the United States to ban the sale of American-made tear gas to Bahraini security forces. And last August, some U.S. military aid was cut off after the regime expelled an American diplomat for meeting with members of an opposition party.

But that’s it.

Delaying shipments of tanks, jets, and tear gas amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist when the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy remains headquartered outside Bahrain’s capital. And Bahrain’s participation in air raids against the Islamic State has only strengthened the bond between the regime and the White House.

Indeed, the crisis in Iraq and Syria has breathed new life into the military-first approach that has long dominated Washington’s thinking about the Middle East. Any government willing to join this new front in the “War on Terror” is primed to benefit both from American largesse and a free pass on repression.

People power in the Middle East must be matched by popular demand here in the United States to shake the foundations of our foreign policy. With a new year upon us, it’s our turn to face down fear and insist that another path is possible.

Amanda Ufheil-Somers is the assistant editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project. MERIP.org
Distributed via OtherWords. OtherWords.org

  • DFinMOzarks

    After some of the terrible black eyes that this country got when trying to steer elections or overturn duly elected leaders like we did in Iran in the early 1950’s when the CIA and MI5 worked to get Mohammed Mossaddeq ousted and the Shah in power to get more favor operating terms for US and British oil companies I’m pretty sure this country has pretty much got out of that business. We did deal with some shady characters like the Diem brothers in Vietnam, Pinochet in Chile, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Duvalier gang in Haiti, Suharto in Indonesia, Park in South Korea, Stalin in Russia, Baptiste in Cuba, Hussein in Iraq, Tito in Yugoslavia, Torrijos and Norriega in Panama and Galtieri in Argentina just to name a few. But these bad guys made it to power without our help. I don’t for a second believe we would have been a lot better off had we never dealt with them. Stalin, for instance, was a huge contributor to the allies in defeating the Axis powers in WWII. Some other bad players like Assad and Kaddaffi had well earned no trade embargoes from us.

    We have a choice of having US trade with country’s or simply not doing business with them if we find their repression too extreme. We can’t simply refuse to have any kind of trade with every country led by a dictator. Some of them can only be led by a dictator and some are the only source of critical elements we can’t get from anywhere else. Generally speaking, US businesses are better off if we have open trade policies with as many countries (like China) as possible. We should try and live with them if they are not butchers like Assad but we aren’t the worlds policemen, and I for one am glad we are moving away from that style of foreign policy. The only beneficiaries from that is the US arms industries and defense contractors.

    Many folks (both GOP and DEM) have expressed doubts about some president Obama’s leadership in other areas but in foreign policy I think he has done the best he could with a bad mess. That foreign policy is getting us out of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where those in charge don’t really want us there except to bleed us dry and use our troops to remain in power. It’s also helped us develop better trading relations with others which has boosted our economy. For that reason alone I think his plan to recognize and start trade again with Cuba is the right move. We fought a long war with Vietnam and have had good trade relations with them for over 20 years now. What sense is there in continuing a 55 year long mistake.