(An earlier version of this piece appeared in Ahramonline on 7.12.2013)
It has been a truism for decades to attribute the drivers of US foreign policy in the Middle East to two realist drivers; free flow of oil from the major Gulf producers and Israel’s security, with the latter seen as part of the US power projection in this region since the cold war era and increasingly also a domestic policy concern since the late 1960s.
Glibert Achcar in his tour de force of the recent Arab revolutions in The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (University of California Press and Saqi Books, 2013), views US foreign policy in the region as an exclusive domain for the realists (who care most about the free flow of oil and Israel as a strategic asset in the Cold War and now the only reliable one in a shaky region).
In this he is supported by former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Martin Indyk, who argues that unlike the balance the US had always to strike between the national interest and the nation’s values, “in the Middle East…every American president since Franklin Roosevelt has struck that balance in favour of the national interest, downplaying the promotion of America’s democratic values because of the region’s strategic importance.”
It has to be noted that national interest, according to Indyk who now works with the Brookings Institution, stands for economic and security interests which can be measured in the short term.
Timothy Mitchell, in his seminal work, Carbon Democracy (Verso Books, 2011), argued for seeing democracy, human rights and the Wilsonian tradition in general as instruments deployed to stabilise the capitalist project in the region, and the world at large, in a much more effective way compared to brutal autocracies. In other words, democracy and human right are necessary instruments sometimes.
Let us look more deeply into the vast oil question.
The US is the ultimate guarantor of energy supplies from the Middle East, which provides about a third of global oil production (nearly 14 percent of total global energy production) and is the main provider for Europe, China and Japan. The Arab region has about 50 percent of world oil reserves.
Although the US does not primarily depend on this oil for own energy needs, it is extremely important for main players in the world economy, whose financial health affects that of the US in the interdependent global economic environment. This policeman function should also provide Washington DC with a clout when negotiating trade and other economic issues with the rest of the industrialised world.
Historically, it was oil that attracted the US to the region, especially after WWII when the US became the region power broker and security guarantor. The 1956 Suez Crisis signaled the end of 40 years of imperial control by the French and the British following the 1904 Sykes-Picot agreement.
Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the world, provides the best example of how American values can become so subservient to hard interests. With no constitution nor real parliament, the royal family exercises absolute authority, which is formally vested in the king but legitimated by an alliance with an extremely conservative clergy, which controls education, public space and is financially well-endowed.
Mitchell, and others, argue that this political and social arrangement in Saudi Arabia is not primarily natural or an expression of indigenous factors only, but has been as well built by external intervention, mainly British, and then sustained by the Americans who punished deviations from this model.
Israel competes with Saudi Arabia for the position of the most important US ally in the region. US-Israeli relations rest on a complex mix of domestic and foreign policy concerns and priorities. Domestic concerns, especially the role and influence of the pro-Israel Jewish and evangelical communities in supporting a special bilateral relationship, play a strong role. The 1967 war transformed this relationship into a strategic sphere with Israel becoming a central part of the US Cold War policies in the Middle East.
Through the pro-Israel lobby, Israel not only impeded itself in the matrix of dominant US interests but was also easily seen as a cause that deserved support on moral and cultural grounds rooted in western affinities, common values and shared historical experiences.
To ensure the stability of the region, hence continuous oil flow and Israel’s security, the US had to turn a blind eye (or even support) the practices of many autocratic, dictatorial and corrupt regimes whose grip over power was rooted in systematic violations of human, minority and women rights and gave rise to extremist and fundamentalist groups which operated underground, partly due to the lack of genuine democratic space.
“Support to dictators has been the bane of American policy in the Middle East” argues Vali Nasr, who is the current dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. Nasr believes that dictators were good to the US but over time they created the very problems the US wanted them to contain.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a watershed moment because for a few years they opened a window that showed a possible overlap between democratisation and foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, bringing them both under the rubric of national security for both the neoconservatives and the liberals.
Democratisation was no longer dismissed by many hard-nosed realists as an idealist concern. Until then there was no alternative strategy and the dominant policy voices in Washington DC were those, at best, calling for “gradual” democratisation to be undertaken by the very ruling circles whose interests ironically rested on maintaining the status quo.
The Bush democratisation offensive in the region, however, floundered in 2005 and 2006 after the Muslim Brothers gained over 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in Egypt and a majority in the legislative house of the Palestinian Authority and then assumed de facto control over Gaza.
But even before what should have been a predictable win by the Islamists, democratisation programs through MEPI [Middle East Partnership Initiative] were criticised by many as window dressing.
Even after the effective demise of the Bush doctrine for democratisation, there were still some voices in Washington DC supporting the overall effort as a better insurance policy for US national interests and not merely as the right thing to do in line with American values.
The position of this camp was best articulated by Tamar Cofman Wittes, who tried to marry the US strategic interests with its values, claiming that only democratisation in the Middle East could ensure sustainable support of US interests as the “reliance on strong, autocratic leaders who can guarantee policy cooperation even in the face of domestic disapproval” was no longer sustainable.
Autocratic regimes were suitable for cold war era policy objectives but that they cannot handle transnational threats such as “international organised crime, refugee and other migrant flows, and, most notably, international terrorism.”
The Bush administration thought that reforming the autocratic regimes and making them more efficient could drain a major source for radicalism and anti-Americanism, but it could not stomach a transition in which the new democrats are not as malleable and certainly more committed to a nationalist or a religiously motivated anti-Americanism. This is why the Muslim Brotherhood started to look like an enticing option for a certain group of policymakers in Washington in the mid 2000s. It had become certain by then the risks that accompany the Arab democratisation are far outweighed by the risks of watching some of the Arab republics crumble and collapse uncontrollably in a few years.
In 2009, Wittes joined Clinton as an assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs in the first Obama administration. But the policy did not change much, at least not publicly.