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July 26, 2016

Human Rights Not a “Tertiary” Interest in U.S. Middle East Policy

This blog is cross posted from the Huffington Post.

Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson’s op-ed in The New York Times“Why the U.S. Military Can’t Fix Syria,” reveals many of the misguided assumptions that have guided the Obama Administration’s policy of strategic restraint in the Middle East. While this policy of non-intervention is apparently a point of pride for President Obama and evidently for Simon and Stevenson as well, its results in the region, most glaringly in Syria, are far from self-evidently positive.

Simon and Stevenson’s analysis is based on a counsel of despair that the United States cannot “save the Middle East from itself.” Therefore, they argue, it should not try to end the crisis in Syria, but should restrict itself to offering humanitarian assistance to Syria’s neighbors. Concerns for civilian protection and accountability for human rights violations, which should be guiding principles for U.S. foreign policy, are airily dismissed by Simon and Stevenson as “strategically tertiary.” They repeat the straw man argument that the only military options for the United States in Syria are all out war, or non-intervention.

It is worth examining some of Simon and Stevenson’s questionable assertions.

First, and most importantly, the case for greater U.S. engagement in the Middle East does not rest on the neo-colonial idea that the United States has a duty to save the Middle East from itself. The United States’ own national interests are inextricably bound up with events in the region.

In Syria, the United States should prioritize civilian protection and humanitarian access in accordance with the provisions of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2268, which Russia voted for. The United States should pressure Russia to act on its agreement to advance civilian protection and press forward multilateral efforts to bring an end to the conflict and a transition away from the Assad regime, while ensuring that Syria is not left to fall into the hands of Sunni extremist groups.

The major external protagonists in the Syria conflict—Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States—are all united in their opposition to ISIS, which has been the major beneficiary of the disastrous years of conflict. That alone should provide motivation for renewed multilateral efforts to animate a peace process.

Perhaps the most remarkable assertion in Simon and Stevenson’s piece is the observation that the United States lacks the willingness and capacity to engage in “stabilization operations,” because it “lacks the stomach for brutality.” It is not at all clear why stabilization operations must entail brutality, but there is no doubt that they are challenging and require a sustained commitment that the U.S. government has often been unwilling to expend.

Nevertheless, the United States does not really have a choice. Authoritarian regimes across the Middle East are in varying degrees of crisis and have been collapsing under the weight of their own contradictions. These failing or failed states in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and even Egypt are in urgent need of stabilization. 

Simon and Stevenson say that the United States does have a direct interest in what they call “killing jihadists in Syria,” and they suggest that the current air campaign against ISIS is working. This is a baffling assertion. Even while ISIS may be losing territory in Syria and Iraq, it has demonstrated its destructive reach in Iraq, Turkey, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia.

The threat of ISIS-inspired terrorism will not be defeated by airstrikes alone. Without a broader countering violent extremism strategy that includes winding down the sectarian conflicts on which ISIS thrives, and promoting the development of inclusive, tolerant societies rooted in human rights and the rule of law, such measures risk being counterproductive. In short, there can be no effective strategy to counter terrorism without the stabilization and reconstruction programs that Simon and Stevenson so deprecate.

In May 2011, President Obama said that U.S. support for universal human rights in the Middle East was “not a secondary interest... it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.” Simon and Stevenson were senior White House officials at the time, in charge of implementing a policy they appear not to believe in, so it is perhaps not surprising that the results have been so poor.

President Obama was right, even if he neglected to follow through with his commitment. The visible cost of less U.S. engagement in the region—whether in the humanitarian catastrophe of Syria, the spreading reach of ISIS violence, or the disruptive impact of massive migrant flows into Europe—all point to the imperative need for the United States to be engaged in finding a resolution to these crises.