By Mike Lebson Contributor November 8, 2009

For the past thirty years, American presidents have supported democracy and human rights in the Middle East with rhetoric, but have failed to support it with action. This is because the three main strategic objectives of American presidents – stability, peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and steady supplies of oil – have all been incompatible with the promotion of human rights and democracy.

Decades spent in the pursuit of these goals, not a clash of civilizations, has led to the current Middle Eastern antipathy toward the United States. Although Obama is strategically correct to de-emphasize democracy promotion, he is morally and tactically incorrect. Now that the US has taken a seat for the first time on the UN Human Rights Council, Obama has an opportunity to address that dilemma as well, particularly by recasting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the language of rights.

The crux of the incompatibility is that democracies are naturally fickle, raucous, and unstable. Only strong institutions designed to handle mass participation and protect individual rights can keep the passions of democracy within stable bounds. It has become a well-known fact that countries transitioning to democracy are prone to domestic conflicts and even war, while some revert back to authoritarianism. Therefore, during the Cold War, when forced to choose between an unpredictable democratization process and a stable authoritarian ally, the United States chose the latter. Since the 1990s, rather than partnering with unstable democratizing countries like Lebanon, the United States has continued to ally closely with stable authoritarian governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Musharraf’s Pakistan, nudging them only gently for democratic reforms. Since 9/11, U.S. administrations have determined that instability is more dangerous to U.S. interests overseas than shortfalls of human rights and democracy.

Unfortunately, peace, between Israel and its neighbors, also appears to be incompatible with democracy promotion. The only two countries to conclude peace treaties with the Jewish state, Egypt and Jordan, are not democracies. And the only two Arab populations who have made progress toward democracy, the Palestinians and the Lebanese, present Israel with the most challenges. It is precisely because of their efforts toward democracy that the Palestinian and the Lebanese governments are incapable of preventing attacks on Israel by militant groups. Public opinion surveys, such as “A View from the Arab World” conducted by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, reveal that Israel is perceived as the most threatening state in the world by respondents from six different Arab countries. It is likely to believe, then, that democracy in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would likely lead to more anti-Israel policies rather than less.

Finally, since the oil shocks of the 1970s, every American administration has made it a priority to secure a steady supply of oil for American industries and consumers. Oil prices are sensitive to supply disruptions such as those caused by civil and international conflict, providing another reason to seek regional peace and stability.

Even though the United States was founded on principles of freedom and political equality, it is strategically illogical for it to push these democratic ideals in the Middle East. As a result, every American president since Carter has had a bifurcated foreign policy in the Middle East: supporting human rights and democracy rhetorically, while giving priority to strategic goals in practice. Not surprisingly, Arab publics are skeptical about America’s commitment to democracy as a foreign policy priority; almost two-thirds do not believe democracy is a real American objective in the Middle East, according to Telhami’s survey.

“A View from the Arab World” also reveals, however, that we can gain the trust of Arab publics by brokering a comprehensive and just peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Luckily, this is reconcilable with both promotion of human rights and one of America’s long-standing strategic goals. Starting with the UN Human Rights Council, Obama should reframe the conflict into the language of rights: the rights to safety, security, religion, and national existence, as well as the rights to property, justice, free movement, employment, trade, and national self-determination. Promoting democracy would dovetail easily with a peace agreement: international funding and close monitoring can catalyze development of democratic institutions in the nascent Palestinian state, including an independent judiciary and the rule of law; Israel could be persuaded to free political prisoners; and both states must grant full rights and privileges of citizenship to all citizens.

In addition, the administration should apply quiet diplomatic and economic pressure elsewhere in the region to end human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran. Obama should use the opportunity of the Unites States’ seat on the Human Rights Council to raise the priority of democracy and human rights in American foreign policy in the Middle East, starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doing so will help dispel the widespread belief that the United States talks about democracy but walks around with dictators.

Mike Lebson is a Ph.D. candidate of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

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