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February 18, 2014

Supporting Repressive Governments Does Not Enhance Security

This is a cross post from the Huffington Post:

After watching authoritarian regimes in the Arab region crumble over the last few years, often leaving terrible problems and great instability in their wake, it was disappointing to listen to ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Adam Smith talking about the U.S. government "supporting a government that is not as free and open as we would like them to be" being "in our best interest in terms of maintaining relationship and stability," in the Committee hearing on U.S. Security Policy and Defense Posture in the Middle East on February 11.

While it may be true that soft-pedaling objections to repression and human rights violations can make for a more cordial diplomatic relationship with authoritarian rulers, it is a fantasy to suppose that condoning violations of human rights and denial of basic freedoms will lead to stability. Current conditions in two of the countries Representative Smith referred to, Bahrain and Egypt, attest to this.

Such an approach is also detrimental to U.S. national interests. Ten years ago, the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission Report reflected on the contribution that perceived U.S. support for repressive governments in the Middle East had made to the resentment of the United States in which terrorist extremism had taken root. The report recommended that where Muslim governments do not uphold human rights and respect the rule of law the U.S. must make a stand against such violations. The report recalled a lesson from the Cold War: "short-term gains in cooperating with the most repressive and brutal governments were too often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America's stature and interests."

It seems like the lessons of the past are quickly forgotten. The idea that there is a "balance" to be found, or a trade-off to be made in the short term, between promoting human rights and democracy on the one hand and promoting security or stability on the other is misleading. Denying people their basic rights and freedoms does not lead to stability and there is no optimum level of human rights violations that will somehow enhance security.

Congressman Smith was on to something when he noted, "we seem to constantly be moving back and forth between the two interests in a way that is confusing for the region." Congressman Smith should realize that when he describes human rights and security as values that are in fundamental tension with each other he contributes to the confusion he is concerned about. Promoting human rights is a tool for enhancing security, not something that should be traded away in exchange for illusory stability.

Mr. Smith concedes that sometimes the United States will support repressive rulers in the Middle East. That may be a realistic assessment of U.S. policies, but it should be no surprise that such policies make the United States unpopular with the people of the region who have to live with the consequences.

Ambassador Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in responding to Representative Smith, spent too long speaking in terms of finding a balance between security interests and concerns about human rights and democracy. From her recent experience as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Ambassador Patterson knows first hand the consequences of policies geared to finding a balance with authoritarian rulers in Cairo in the interests of maintaining friendly relations. The United States is distrusted by all sides in this political conflict, and Egyptian human rights advocates do not feel that they have had the support of the United States.

To her credit, Ambassador Patterson was able to emphasize in her remarks the "long-term interest" of the United States in democratic transition in Egypt, which she described as "critically important." Such a transition will require the United States government to promote unequivocally democratic values like human rights and the rule of law.

She mentioned that "our messaging needs work," and she is right about that. One immediate step she should take is to instruct her staff in the State Department to desist from talking about a balance between promoting human rights and ensuring security, or any similar language that suggests the two objectives are incompatible. Clarity about U.S. support for universal values of human rights and democracy would help to restore America's tarnished reputation in the region.