The Biden administration is correct in responding to reported Russian atrocities by arming Ukraine to defend itself and is equally justified in assiduously avoiding a direct military confrontation with Putin’s Russia.
As the Russian war in Ukraine has impacted the Middle East economically and politically, however, Middle Eastern publics are seeing several stark contradictions in how President Biden has approached both regions.
In Ukraine, President Biden has poured billions of dollars in weapons to help President Volodymyr Zelenskyy defend his country in its battle for democracy and freedom and rejection of Putin’s dictatorship and inhumane war. In the Middle East, by contrast, Washington has sold billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Arab dictators despite their atrocious human rights record and the suppression of their peoples’ civil liberties.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, and others have balked at the United States’ anti-Putin campaign in the region. Dubai in the UAE remains the playground of Russian billionaire oligarchs. Turkey is also welcoming Russian-owned super yachts to its ports. Saudi-Russian economic and diplomatic courtship is becoming more visible on the world stage despite American entreaties to the contrary.
As a Middle Eastern friend of mine told me recently, he and his compatriots see very little difference in the attitude toward Arab dictators between the presidencies of Trump and Biden. Whereas Trump used both rhetoric and actions to cozy up to Arab autocrats, Biden has used soft power (rhetoric) to extol the virtues of democratic values but extended hard power support to these same dictators.
Arms sales and military aid worth billions of dollars continue to flow into Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and other Arab and non-Arab countries in the region with little regard for their serial human rights violations, whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE or in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
The ongoing massive infusion of American weapons into Ukraine will hopefully help the Ukrainian military defeat the Russian aggression. The huge American arms sales and assistance to Arab countries, on the other hand, will definitely empower Arab autocrats to defeat their own people’s struggle for freedom and human dignity.
While it is true that Ukraine is being invaded by a foreign power and Arab countries are being violated by their own regimes, it makes no difference whether human rights and democratic values are being trampled upon by a foreign dictator or an indigenous one. Such a distinction is fake and disingenuous.
This dichotomy should not be lost on American leaders as they pursue a new strategic paradigm in a post-Ukraine war Middle East. Fig leaves such as the so-called Abraham Accords should not erase the contradiction between the United States’ costly and deep commitment to human rights in Ukraine and its lukewarm, mostly rhetorical, advocacy of democratic values in Arab countries.
As the Arab regimes lose their primacy as key actors in the region and see themselves being replaced by three non-Arab states – Israel, Turkey and Iran – they tend to enact more repressive laws and practices to repress their peoples. They are suppressing their peoples’ resourcefulness, creativity and yearning for freedom, thereby curtailing those countries’ ability to grow economically and innovate technologically.
If creativity and innovation are allowed to emerge, they could empower Arab societies to move forward. If Arab peoples become part of the governing process, they could help their leaders regain their lost regional influence and prestige. Conversely, such influence could not be recovered through endemic tyranny. …
Thanks to U.S. military support, Ukraine has a good chance to withstand and potentially defeat Russia’s aggression. The universal ideal of freedom and democracy for which people the world over aspire should be upheld and defended on principle and not according to cynical political calculations. This ideal is indivisible, not selective; global, not regional; and principled, not subject to political bargaining.
The high moral road the Biden administration has followed in Ukraine should become the guiding principle for America’s relations with Middle Eastern regimes. The pursuit of political interests should not trump the administration’s true commitment to democratic ideals in relations with Arab regimes.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version was published on ResponsibleStatecraft.org.