What are Western vital interests in the Middle East?

Western governments should seek to clearly define their interests; understand how best to promote them; and balance them with a long-term commitment to democratisation

Emanuele Ottolenghi
On 20 August 2013 18:35

Egypt’s descent into mayhem is understandably keeping policymakers focused on the short-term challenge of making violence subside. Long-term policy questions also linger – should Western aid to Egypt be reassessed?

Yet, the debate should be, first and foremost, what are Western vital interests in the region? And how best are they served? The salutary emotional impulse to support human rights should be one factor driving foreign policy – but not the only one. Other issues still matter:

1. Affordable and secured energy resources must keep flowing to sustain the global economy.

2. Key waterways such as Suez and the Persian Gulf should not be exposed to instability and uncertainty.

3. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates should not be given the opportunity to exploit chaos and vacuums of authority to re-establish footholds in the region.

4. A safe security environment for Israel and the Palestinians to pursue peace should be protected and enhanced, not eroded.

5. Anarchy and chaos should be avoided at all costs, because of the negative attendant consequences of failed states as fertile grounds for terrorism, access to weapons for militias and the like.

6. Economic stabilization should be pursued to prevent the immediate threat of famine and long-term humanitarian disasters that could destabilise the entire region.

The success of democracy in the region depends also on defending these interests.

Sadly, none of the above is a top priority for Western leaders who are either grandstanding for principle’s sake, or doing nothing for fear of choosing between bad and worse.

As European Union foreign ministers prepare to gather in Brussels this week to discuss this matter, there are indications of a desire among them to finally make good on the conditionality inscribed in the EU-Egyptian Association Agreements, which is linked to human rights.

Denmark has already cut aid. Both French President Francois Hollande and British Foreign Secretary, William Hague have summoned the Egyptian ambassador. Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt referred to the human rights clause in the Association Agreement in his twitter feed. Clearly, punishment is in the air.

There is also mounting pressure in the United States for Congress and the Administration to reassess aid to Egypt – with news that financial aid will now be suspended while military aid will continue.

Cutting aid to Egypt, if it happens, will be a hasty decision, spurred by emotions more than a balanced assessment of how to best pursue Western interests – especially given that Gulf aid is flowing to Egyptian coffers and Egypt is thus less beholden to Western diktats.

For decades, Western democracies did not mind the Arab world’s dismal human rights record and the region’s authoritarian governance. When George W. Bush’s America identified Western support for Arab autocrats as a source of grievance for Islamic radicalism and named democracy as the cure for the region’s democratic deficit, most European governments recoiled in horror.

‘It’s the peace process, stupid!’ they insistently reminded former President Bush, repeating the dictators’ mantra, according to which making peace between Israelis and Palestinians was the region’s Gordian knot, and such an urgent priority that it trumped all other concerns.

Accordingly, though EU association agreements with Arab countries all contained a conditionality clause about human rights, it was mostly disregarded in favour of regime stability. After all, ‘moderate’ Arab regimes were seen as the key to a successful Middle East peace process – something Arab leaders constantly reminded their European interlocutors of every time they dared bring up human rights.

Europeans then accepted the Arab autocrats’ stark choice – it was them or the hated radicals – even as America shifted its policy from support for the status quo to democracy promotion.

To be fair, America’s commitment to regional democratisation was neither long-lived nor well-planned. By Bush’s second term, democracy promotion retreated ever more into the confines of rhetoric, while the search for an elusive pluralism in Iraq and Afghanistan stumbled on sectarianism, continuing insurgency and the resilience of local politics.

But then the Arab street rose against the rulers, making it abundantly clear that, while they still hated Israel, Arabs were not prepared to wait another generation to have their grievances addressed. Predictably, the toppling of dictators made room for an Islamist ascendance.

After a decade of indecisive policies to deal with radical Islam and its terrorist threat, many Westerners were ready to give Islamists a chance to rule – believing that somehow, by winning the responsibility to govern through democratic practices Islamic radicals would evolve into pragmatists and, in time, would wholeheartedly embrace democratic values.

Inspired by people power, and deluded that masses rising against tyrants were synonymous with peaceful democratic change, Western leaders threw their policies out the window, stuck the democracy label on the Arab Spring overnight, and hoped for the best.

It has not worked out well – democracy remains elusive and fragile even in the best of circumstances. Arab countries are engulfed in a deadly struggle between the old elites and some version of Islamic radicalism – with the sectarian irritant making matters worse where the ruling elites are also an ethnic or religious minority.

Trouble has so far spared most of the monarchies – but at a price. Civil war has engulfed Syria and Libya – and it could sweep Egypt. The spectre of famine looms on the banks of the Nile. Anarchy and power vacuums rapidly filled by Al-Qaeda are emerging in Syria, the Sinai Peninsula, and Libya.

Iraq’s sectarian violence is rapidly sucking that country back to its darkest days before Bush’s military surge in 2006. And with Syria and Iraq feeding into each other’s sectarianism and Lebanon being slowly pulled into the next door abyss, the entire Levant is on fire.

All of which makes it abundantly obvious by now that Arab democracy remains a very distant prospect. There can be no democracy without democrats; without the acceptance of minority rights – including religious minorities and women; without a modicum of law and order and economic sustenance; without the creation of genuine economic opportunities and social mobility for the largely disenfranchised youth of the region; without proper institution building and without the rise of civilian control over the military.

None of this can be achieved short-term by merely spouting pro-democracy slogans. Short-term goals should be economic stabilisation and security – none of which can be achieved by sanctioning the Egyptian military, especially given that Gulf financial support makes Western leverage insignificant and suspension of aid ineffectual.

Western governments should do better than entrust their national interests and foreign policy goals in the region to an incoherent sequence of statements spurred by emotional responses to evolving events they have no control over and are hardly responsible for. They should instead seek clearly to define their interests; understand how best to promote them; and balance them with a long-term commitment to democratisation.

It is not too late to start – but cutting aid alone will not improve our chances.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC

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