With Friends Like These: Abusive Frenemies and American Mideast Policy

Pop quiz: name the two largest (by far) recipients of U.S. foreign military aid and one other country which recently negotiated the biggest American arms sale deal in world history. Let’s call them the Big three (beneficiaries of largesse, that is). Need some hints? One is ruled by a dictatorial general who came to power in a coup and subsequently ordered the slaughter of some one thousand civilian protesters. Another regularly defies international law, has annexed conquered territory, and boasts a military that has shot to death 250 civilian protesters along its border over just the last year. Finally, the last country fatally starved upwards of 85,000 foreign children and still decapitates women for the crimes of "witchcraft" and "sorcery." By the way, all three are rather tight with old Uncle Sam – regularly described as "partners" in Washington. Which reminds me of the old saying: with friends like these, who needs…well, you get it.

Ready for the (not-so) shocking answers? So, the military dictatorship is Egypt – recipient of $1.3 billion in military aid per annum. The nation that conquered and annexed adjacent territory is Israel – the donee of some $3.1 billion in military aid each year; and, ironically, the state that US leaders regularly (if incorrectly) tout as the “only democracy in the Mideast.” And the charming, child-starving, woman-beheading regime: that’s the theocracy and absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia – future owner (maybe) of a record $110 billion in US military equipment. Now that’s a proud lot!

By backing this core of abusive regimes, Washington only rewards and encourages bad behavior. If the US didn’t cut funding when Egypt gunned down protesters, and Trump praises its President General Sisi as doing a "tremendous job," what’s to stop repeat human rights abuses? If Washington barely blushed when the Saudis killed and dismembered a Washington Post journalist, and refuses to shutdown the Saudi terror war in Yemen, why should the crown prince – and Jared Kushner bro – behave? And, if Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can commit crimes at will, can the US really criticize Chinese human rights abuses of dissidents or Uighur Muslims? Finally, if the US unilaterally moves (as it did) its embassy to a "Jewish capital" in Jerusalem and recognizes (as it also has) Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, how can Washington protest when Russia annexes Crimea, or Eastern Ukraine?

Now there are different ways to view these staggering disconnects – perhaps even cognitive dissonances – between America’s public values and its (not-quite) private policy. Some view it as proof of US hypocrisy in the world – and it is that. Others see this as the realist nature of doing business in a complex, nasty world – perhaps this is also true; thought it rests on the assumption that the US should be meddling in the region to begin with, which seems to have less and less efficacy. Finally, another group of US imperial apologists trade in what-about-ism – pointing to (ostensibly) worse regimes in the Mideast to mitigate the ugly nature of America’s partners.

On and on the arguments – which are as old as the US republic itself – go as each side retreats into its comfortable ideological corner. Still, as a former devotee and servant of the American empire, and a reformed / concerned citizen, let me propose one rarely noted addition: that backing authoritarian and/or abusive regimes often proves both ethically and strategically destructive to US standing in the world, and, by extension, to the safety of otherwise disengaged American civilians.

Values, so to speak, cannot be separated from and are inextricably linked to strategy. As such, over the last 18 years the combination of American military hyper-interventionism and nefarious alliances has been utterly counterproductive – destabilizing the region, emboldening jihadis, and endangering the Homeland. And make no mistake: libertarians, "realists," progressives, and (believe it or not) conventional national security hawks, should ultimately agree with this proposition; if, that is, each could set aside partisan tribal affiliations and do what’s right for the country they purport to love. So don’t bet on it.

Nevertheless, consider an historical analogy. In the Cold War – for which, oddly, many hawkish observers seem to pine – the United States set aside its values of liberty and democracy in favor of reflexive anti-communism. Thus, Washington would back, aid, fund, or place in power right-wing dictatorial regimes that abused their citizens and (sometimes) regional neighbors. The priority became promoting capitalism and (superficially) decreasing the zero-sum global influence of the Soviet Union. All this, of course, was based on the false assumption that worldwide communism was a monolith intent on world conquest. It wasn’t. The major communist powers – think Russia and China – went to war with each other just as often.

Worse still, the outcome of these odious partnerships was usually “blowback”– unintended consequences that left the world a more unstable and dangerous place. CIA-instigated coups and surreptitious military backing of autocracies increased the amount of intra-state and regional wars, ethnic cleansing, and jihadi terrorism worldwide – from South America to Africa and Asia. In North Africa and Southwest Asia in particular, the US backed (and in a sense birthed) Islamist insurgencies and terrorists, who, conveniently, were also anti-communist and anti-Soviet. Of course, once victorious, such groups turned their ire onto the United States and the rest, so they say, is history.

In the 21st century, the US strategic paradigm has shifted but remains equally obtuse and deficient. In place of anti-communism, the new enemy "monolith" is Islamism. And, true to its antiquated Cold War-thinking, Washington now backs anyone in the region that purports to fight "terror." See there’s no room for nuance, for complexity, for parsing out the differences between local nationalists and global jihadists, internal and international threats, or manageable

versus existential threats to the US So here we go again. The answer to all vaguely Islamist challenges is always the same: US military intervention, raids, or foreign training; plus American support and arms for faintly anti-terror (but abusive) regimes.

The formula has never worked as designed – then or now. Cast aside delusions: there will be "Blowback" 2.0 as a result of American support for the Big Three and other vile regimes. It will go something like this: backing authoritarian Arab or apartheid Israeli leaders will radicalize regional (and international) Muslims against not only their governments but the West, more generally. Civilians will be wantonly slaughtered in the ensuing local wars – further substantiating the Islamist narrative and grievances. Global terror attacks will rise – as they have since 9/11 – and some of these horrific events will target the West, mainly the US In response to the ensuing public outrage, Washington will feel obliged (and pleased anyway) to militarily intervene and throw more cash at local strongmen "partners." Which, ever so absurdly, serves to repeat the whole cycle of forever war.

Where does it all end? Violence begets violence. More arms don’t decrease conflict – they fuel it. Still the lumbering American hegemon either never learns, or, more disturbingly, craves a system that feeds the military-industrial corporate beast.

Hypocrisy can be contra-strategic in addition to ethically unseemly. Throwing arms, cash, support, and the American name behind a military dictatorship, a theocratic absolute monarchy, and a corrupt, apartheid-like government, shames our nation and subverts safety. It is as indefensible as it is counterproductive. That Washington is able to do so demonstrates that either the public is utterly apathetic or completely powerless in the face of the corporate arm’s industry.

It’s hard to say which is worse: a people who don’t care about their broken democracy or one that hardly exists at all.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen