The following report is a summary of the proceedings from a workshop on "conditionality" cohosted by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The workshop was designed to examine the principles, effectiveness and possible harms of recommendations from human rights, advocacy and think tank organizations ("U.S. policy groups") to condition U.S. arms transfers and financial and diplomatic support ("U.S. support") to abusive governments in the Middle East and North Africa on human rights reforms ("conditionality"). The event was comprised of two, one-hour sessions.
Each session consisted of brief presentations by panelists based on papers distributed to participants in advance, followed by a group discussion. The first session addressed conditionality as a concept, its usage and its effectiveness, while the second session examined possible alternatives to conditionality. What follows are sequential records of each of the workshop's two sessions and post-session dialogues.
The proceedings at this workshop were conducted under "Chatham House Rules"—namely that participants were free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor those of any other participant, could be revealed.
Session 1: Conditionality as a Concept, Its Usage and Its Effectiveness
The first session began with a brief presentation of how to conceptualize conditionality: What exactly it is; how human rights organizations, advocacy groups, think tanks, and policymakers have historically sought to use the notion of conditioning aid to certain actors—including both state and non-state actors; and does the conditioning of U.S. support serve to actually alter the calculus of the recipient actor? At its core, conditionality does not mean the full or permanent cessation of support, but rather implies its continuation, albeit with a temporary pause until certain criteria are met.
The presenter acknowledged the fact that the notion of conditionality has, in addition to the Middle East, been raised in relation to a variety of contexts, such as U.S. support to the autocratic regimes of Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s.
Regardless of context, a common theme has repeatedly surfaced: the sidelining of human rights issues for supposed geopolitical interests.
However, regardless of context, a common theme has repeatedly surfaced: the sidelining of human rights issues for supposed geopolitical interests. Moreover, if such support were to be conditioned—or even severed completely—the question was immediately raised as to whether this would fundamentally alter the calculus of the recipient actor. In other words, would the conditioning of such support lead to positive change, or could it actually lead to these actors becoming more repressive and result in the U.S. losing its supposed "leverage" over these actors?
The second speaker sought to reorient the question of conditionality by shifting the conversation to the supposed purpose of this support in the first place: the idea that such assistance somehow advances "U.S. interests." Instead of asking if conditionality as a strategy itself is worth pursuing and if it would have the intended result, the speaker questioned the overbearing logic of providing this assistance in the first place. First, they began by noting that the ways in which the United States differentiates various forms of aid and assistance—such as military aid, economic aid, arms sales, etc.—are not viewed abroad as so neatly differentiated. Whatever the specific form of the support, it is support nonetheless: regardless of how it is justified or seemingly compartmentalized, this assistance is ultimately intended to support these governments.
How, then, does such assistance advance "U.S. interests," as is commonly cited as the original impetus of the support? To begin with, the speaker noted the immense ambiguity surrounding the term "U.S. interests" and how, in the Middle East, in particular, the United States has been operating abroad without a clearly defined strategy or objective. Support for these actors is simply predicated on the abstract notion that vital U.S. interests are being advanced, and that conditioning or severing this assistance would negatively impact Washington's interests. However, without clearly defined regional interests, the U.S. is operating on the notion that such support advances American security or prosperity, or that such assistance provides the U.S. with leverage over these actors—what they referred to as the "fantasy of leverage." In fact, they argued that if one were to critically assess the heavy U.S. presence in the region and the large swaths of assistance provided to these autocratic actors, one would quickly realize that America is paying a large price tag for things that run contrary to its national interest, not to mention the interests of the people of the Middle East who are living under these autocracies.
This discussion prompted one participant to point out that the original rationale for much of this support has actually disappeared. The case of Egypt was used as a prime example. Most commonly, the massive amounts of military and economic assistance delivered to Egypt following the Camp David Accords with Israel have traditionally been viewed as a type of "bribe" to maintain peace between Cairo and Tel Aviv. However, the situation is dramatically different today than it was at the time of the Camp David Accords: Not only is there a substantial military asymmetry between Israel and Egypt today, but both Cairo and Israel maintain the same regional geopolitical posture today. The idea that these two states would go to war is near unthinkable. In fact, as one participant noted, Egypt's Sisi and Israel's Netanyahu share many of the same views and positions on regional issues. Moreover, another speaker explained how such aid—even if not interpreted directly as a bribe—is largely ineffectual for its claimed purpose. They note how military aid to these governments has not been effective in fighting terrorism and provided the example of the insurgency in Egypt's Sinai, which only continues to worsen. Likewise, economic assistance to these countries does almost nothing for the economic situation in many of these countries that remain dominated by different forms of cronyism.
One speaker reoriented the conversation to address the question of whether or not U.S foreign policy is fundamentally interested in human rights objectives? Regardless of whether the support serves its intended purpose or if conditioning such assistance would serve to alter the calculus of the recipient actor, a more basic and fundamental question needs answering: Is the United States interested in advancing human rights objectives in the region? The answer was that the U.S. never imposes conditions or severs this support to autocratic states in the Middle East because they are genuinely not interested in human rights objectives, even if they claim to the contrary. In short, as one participant explained, the U.S. does not care about democracy or human rights in the region. It only wishes to advance its own interests.
The speaker explained that the underlying rationale for this can be found by examining the guiding principle that has dominated U.S. policy in the region for decades: the myth of authoritarian stability. This idea refers to the belief that—in such a "volatile" or "dangerous" region—supporting and maintaining the autocratic regimes in the region are the best ways to promote U.S. interests. In other words, the fundamental goal of U.S. policy has been to keep these autocratic governments in power, out of fear of what could take their place if they were to be removed.
It was noted by several participants that this is a discourse that has been encouraged by these regimes themselves. By branding themselves as the only bulwark against "extremists" or "terrorists," these regimes present themselves as the only actors capable of maintaining a semblance of order in the region. For the U.S., regional policy then becomes a matter of cost-benefit analysis: toleration of human rights abuses and support for these autocratic rulers, or bearing the consequences of the alternative if these governments were to fall. This then embeds America with these actors and creates a stake in the sustainment of these regimes. Everything else—including human rights—falls to the side, and conditionality becomes viewed as anathema to this strategy. Several participants agreed that it is critical for this myth to be properly dispelled and for U.S. policy to fundamentally reorient itself before real change can occur.
Critical to note is that several participants highlighted the centrality of three forces in the U.S. that have served as bulwarks against either conditioning or severing support to these countries, as well as impediments to Washington fundamentally reassessing its relationship with these actors: the military-industrial complex, lobbyists, and centers of knowledge production within the D.C. beltway. Indeed, they highlighted how different actors/groups within the U.S. have interests of their own that they wish to advance. It was noted that massive arms sales and different forms of military aid also serve to subsidize the military-industrial complex and that different lobbying organizations and centers of knowledge production seek to steer U.S. policies in favor of their own agendas, all of which make efforts to curb U.S. support to these actors very difficult.
The conclusions reached at the end of the first session represented the broader debates surrounding the notion of conditionality and whether such approaches actually work in practice. Several speakers and participants emphasized that conditionality is no longer a feasible tool of human rights advocacy. They argued that the ultimate objective of these governments is to remain in power, and the conditioning of U.S. support will not alter the overbearing calculus of those in power nor will it result in the altering of their behavior. However, others countered with the notion that these governments do in fact care a great deal about U.S. support, and go to great lengths to guarantee that this assistance is not conditioned. Viewed from the outside, it may appear that these governments view this aid as inherently fungible, but in actuality, they care a great deal about maintaining such assistance and remain susceptible to conditioning pressures from Washington.
Expressed throughout the discussion was a dire need to fundamentally reassess not only U.S. support to different actors within the region, but U.S. strategy in the Middle East as a whole. It was argued by several participants that reformulating these relationships would not fundamentally alter U.S. interests. With or without U.S. aid, U.S. objectives—such as maintaining the freedom of maneuverability of the seas, preventing the dominance of any one actor in the region, etc.—will remain achievable. The second portion of this workshop was dedicated to probing for possible alternatives to conditionality and tangible steps the U.S. and the U.S. foreign policy community can take to adjust course and encourage democracy and human rights in the region.
Session 2: A Probe of Possible Alternatives to Conditionality
The second session began by laying the groundwork for possible alternatives to the notion of conditionality and tangible steps the U.S. can take to encourage democracy and human rights in the Middle East. The primary alternative that emerged during the discussion was the full cessation of support to these autocratic actors. The first speaker emphasized the themes repeated during the first session: Support for these actors neither advances U.S. interests nor does it provide the U.S. with leverage. Support for these abusive governments neither supports U.S. security or prosperity nor the security or prosperity of the people in the Middle East. Yet, the speaker emphasized that in order for the United States to maintain primacy in the Middle East—and prevent outside powers such as Russia and China from filling the void—the U.S. must have some level of regional engagement. Ending arms transfers to these abusive states, they explained, does not mean the cessation of diplomatic relations, nor the end of other types of political, economic, or military relations. The speaker explained that the United States is currently at a critical inflection point regarding foreign policy objectives writ-large, but especially within the Middle East.
The second speaker presented a list of tangible actions that the U.S. should take to capitalize on this critical inflection point. Several of those actions were echoed by other participants in the workshop, such as how the U.S. should avoid long-term commitments to other countries.
Long-term commitments of security assistance should be avoided because they make suspending, conditioning, or terminating aid much more difficult for the United States, especially when recipient countries begin pursuing policies contrary to U.S. interests or begin engaging in widespread human rights abuses. Likewise, the U.S. needs to establish better mechanisms for accountability and traceability of such assistance.
No country should receive lump sums of aid under its sole control or discretion. Moreover, it was widely agreed upon that there is a need to establish clear rules about how and when security assistance, in particular, may be provided to a foreign government: how long such assistance is intended to last, how to address potential loopholes, and what would constitute a violation of the assistance agreement. Included here should also be what they referred to as a "human rights impact assessment," intended to determine whether certain federal laws designed to prevent aid from going to actors engaged in gross human rights abuses would be violated by the provisioning of such assistance.
The final speaker concluded the session by examining a key element missing from the discussion on conditionality: How the notion fails to recognize U.S. human rights obligations by placing all responsibility—and therefore blame—on the recipient government. They explained that by placing all emphasis on the recipient government, conditionality neglects obligations facing Washington under U.S. law itself, namely, Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act and the Leahy Laws.
Moreover, the speaker—and several other participants—explained that conditionality is no longer applicable because reform in these governments is not possible, especially in the post-Arab uprisings context where these rulers have been rocked by the mass wave of mobilization in 2011.
All assistance for these actors—whether it be military aid, economic aid, political protection, etc.—will in one way or another "feed" the dictatorial regime due to there being no alternative centers of authority in authoritarian centralized governments. This assistance is used by the regime leadership and does not address the needs of the people, their security, etc.
No country should receive lump sums of aid under its sole control or discretion. Moreover, it was widely agreed upon that there is a need to establish clear rules about how and when security assistance, in particular, may be provided to a foreign government.
The primary objective presented by the workshop speakers was clear: It is necessary to pressure the United States to adhere to its own laws and end Washington's contribution to these human rights abuses. This means the full cessation of support to those Middle Eastern countries that engage in widespread human rights abuses.
While the cessation of support is unlikely to result in the ending of human rights abuses in these countries, it will end U.S. complicity in such acts. However, as numerous participants pointed out, the ending of such support does not equate to ending all relations with these countries. Cooperation can still persist in areas where there are overlapping interests: the maintenance of the freedom of maneuverability of the seas (especially the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz), legitimate counterterrorism operations, etc.
Numerous participants in the final discussion emphasized how, moving forward, one of the most important things the U.S. foreign policy community can do is lift up civil society voices from the region. They emphasized how the backing of the international community is critical for these communities (both in terms of endorsement and funding).
Moreover, when deciding on when to support any particular country, the views and perspectives of those impacted by this aid—the people from these countries—must be included by the foreign policy community. In states ruled by autocratic governments, this support is fattening the pockets of the regime, whether it be their own pockets, their repressive apparatus, patronage networks, etc. Moving forward, the speakers and participants of this workshop emphasized again that the U.S. is currently at a critical inflection point regarding its foreign policy writ large, but especially in the Middle East. As this report indicates, the overbearing consensus was clear: Aid to these autocratic governments must end.
To the Foreign Policy Community
Examine and enhance your research and policy recommendations to the U.S. government:
- Critically review and examine the outcomes and effectiveness of past policy recommendations to condition U.S. arms transfers, economic aid, and diplomatic protection ("U.S. support") to assess whether they have been implemented and what measurable impact they have had on the behavior of a government engaged in systematic and widespread human rights and/or international humanitarian law violations ("abusive government").
- Ensure that investigations include research to represent the views of independent voices among impacted communities from the abusive government.
- In public presentations, ensure that any gathering is balanced to include independent voices from impacted communities.
Ensure that all reports and writings regarding U.S. policy in MENA:
- Critically assess and address the role and impact of U.S. support to abusive governments. If your recommendations assume the continuation of such support, even if premised as conditioned on reforms, explain why such support should continue and the costs and benefits of such support.
- Critically examine the extent to which continued U.S. support to an abusive government helps or hinders the asserted interests, as well as the human rights of the relevant country's population. Verify that continued U.S. support will not harm the rights and interests of the population.
- Ensure that reports discuss, distinguish and highlight the extent to which an abusive government is democratically elected, representative, and accountable to its population, i.e can fairly be described as capable of acting in the interests of its population.
- Ensure that reports clearly identify that U.S. support is made to a government, and not to the country or its people, i.e. "arms transfers to the government of Saudi Arabia" and not "arms transfers to Saudi Arabia"; "protection for the government of Egypt" and not "protection for Egypt."
- Include an assessment of U.S. obligations under international human rights law and the laws of war, as well as domestic laws prohibiting the transfer of arms to abusive governments.
- Specifically, address and demand U.S. compliance with:
- International human rights and humanitarian law.
- Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act (codified at 22 U.S.C. § 2304(a)–(i)).
- The Leahy Laws, including section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, 22 U.S.C. 2378d, and Section 362 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code.
- Specifically, address and demand U.S. compliance with:
Ensure that the voices of people from these countries receiving U.S. support – particularly political exiles – are properly included.
- It is vital to include the voices of those who will be tangibly impacted by such support: any analysis of the ramifications of such assistance is incomplete without first-hand testimony to how this aid will impact people on the ground.
- In particular, the voices of political exiles should be amplified, for they offer a critical and independent perspective that serves as a counterweight to the narratives of their government, particularly as civil society voices within these countries are silenced.