The now-infamous fist bump between US President Joe Biden and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman symbolises for many an acknowledgment of American foreign policy under Democratic administrations having stepped back from promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law globally. Naturally, the White House robustly denies that its “values-based policy” towards international relationships has been compromised. But even within the US administration, there are influential voices including in the National Security Council that apparently feel a dose of “realism” is not such a bad thing when it comes to dealing with West Asia. The pushback against this approach, however, has been robust and almost immediate. As West Asia expert Steven Heydemann wrote recently, downgrading the importance the USA attaches ~ at least on paper ~ to human rights issues in West Asian countries carries far greater costs, in both the short and the longer term, than such assessments suggest.
“Assigning human rights in West Asia to the values side ~ the expendable side ~ of the foreign policy ledger is a troubling bit of historical amnesia that carries significant potential consequences.” The argument being made is that how regimes in the predominantly Arab states of the region govern is of critical importance to America and the West. Those in the Heydemann camp, as it were, concede there is widespread fatigue among officials and amidst the wider American population with the constant crises in West Asia which are seen as being a drain on US resources. But rights abuses, they say, need to be understood as the “canary in the governance coal mine” ~ a critical indicator of deeper dysfunctions that have a direct bearing on social stability and the likelihood of domestic turmoil.
When Washington signals that it is prepared to do business with countries that have an abysmal human rights record, what Arab autocrats take away is that they too can continue with business as usual which in most cases includes political repression, curtailment of individual liberty, and denying women agency. The USA, it ought to be kept in mind, has a hoary history of prioritising “stability” over almost anything else when it comes to dealing with the world’s roughest neighbourhoods. But today, there is no Cold War and the “threat of communism” to hide behind for Washington. The Democratic Party’s own rhetoric on rights, especially from its radical wing, makes the Biden administration’s position even more untenable. The bottom line is that US support for West Asian autocracies allegedly in the interest of stability and security is likely to provide neither. An old, rather unfashionable Victorian saying perhaps best encapsulates the predicament for President Biden ~ the company a man keeps defines him.