Time for America to end its double standard in the Middle East

Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences. It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of ...

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences.

It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of the greater problem we face.

It is time to end the double standard that for far too long has guided and distorted America's policies in the Middle East.

Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences.

It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of the greater problem we face.

It is time to end the double standard that for far too long has guided and distorted America’s policies in the Middle East.

You all know the story: For decades, special interest-driven ties have enabled a small lobby in Washington to embrace policies that have cost America dearly and today, increasingly put our national security and national prestige at risk. We have for too long supported Middle Eastern political leaders who themselves represent comparatively small populations with dubious historical claims on the land they control and extreme religious agendas. These so-called allies have not only implemented unfair policies that have earned criticism around the world, they have actually implemented apartheid-like segregation of the people they govern. Minority interlopers have unjustly appropriated power, held it by force, and often brutally oppressed majorities that deserve better.

While this is our policy for a subset of the Middle East, for others in the region we are much less accommodating. We are constantly haranguing them, criticizing, demanding that they achieve an ever-higher standard of behavior … even though their historical claims on the region are every bit as great as those we coddle, even though in many ways they have served America more reliably than those we prop up with our military aid, even though they are in many ways the source of the region’s vitality and have the clearest vision as to how it might break out of the economic and political crises that torment it.

The cost of this double standard is painfully apparent today. Just look at the headlines. In Syria, all America can do is make earnest but impotent shows of solidarity with opposition leaders and search for new adjectives to add to our denunciations of the illegitimate Assad regime. But because of our double standard, because of the fact that we dare not call out the Arab nations we have supported for so long at such a high cost, because we can’t count on them as our allies to do the right thing and add pressure on Assad to go, we are forced to treat this grave humanitarian crisis as though it were happening on the moon, far from any real ability of us to influence it.

Yes, the Syria crisis does, as is often noted, illustrate the greatest of the many follies associated with the frustrating saga of Western intervention in Libya. That is, of course, that by intervening in Libya ineffectively, we have now made it impossible for anyone to believe we will intervene anywhere else, even when, as in Syria’s case, more credible threats of punishing Assad would have been helpful arrows to have in our quiver.

But the Syria case also underscores our core conundrum in the Middle East. Our Arab allies in the region are part of the political problem, not the solution. But because of pressure from their highly paid lobbyists and our dependence on the oil that they sell us at high cost even as they demand we help defend their right to produce it from regional threats — and despite the costs to our economy, the environment and our national security of the manifold negative by-products of the region’s oil industry and the cash it produces — we have given these anti-democratic, abusive, intolerant regimes a free pass.

The pathetically low standard we set for them in terms of either support for our goals or in terms of their own behavior is evident not just in Syria but with regard to Bahrain, with regard to repression of democracy broadly, with regard to their mistreatment of women and religious sects that don’t share a faith with the leaders. It also stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the country that gets the short end of the stick in terms of America’s double standard in the region: Israel.

Imagine: here is Israel, the region’s only democracy, a country that created the most vital, vigorous diversified economy in the region, a country that is widely diverse and driven by a vigorous public debate that often involves (as it has recently) open demonstrations against the ruling government, and we are constantly pressuring them to do more. Compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the treatment of the Shiites or women in the Gulf or of the majority population in Syria. Israel is condemned for defending its own security when we barely offer a burble of criticism when our Arab friends underwrite attacks directly against Americans or U.S. interests.

Yes, Israel and in particular the current administration there deserve much of the criticism they have received. It is high time they worked more proactively to advance the establishment of a functioning Palestinian state that is ultimately as much in their interests as it is in those of the Palestinians who deserve self-rule. But think of how different the Israeli-Palestinian discussions are than those between oppressed populations elsewhere in the region and the governments that have a boot firmly placed on their throats. It’s ugly and both sides are at fault for obstructing progress, but right now you’d have to bet that the Palestinians will achieve statehood before Saudi women gain the basic human rights they deserve, distinct oppressed minorities from Kurdistan to Syria to the Gulf get the right of self-determination, or average people in most parts of the region get a say in how their societies are run.

It’s absolutely clear, then. There’s a double standard in the Middle East and its costing us dearly. But until we open our eyes to its real nature and avoid the deceptive arguments of those who would prefer to coo into the ears of tyrants while publicly badgering our undoubtedly deeply flawed but more worthy Israeli allies, we will be trapped, impotent to promote the changes the region and American interests so urgently require.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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