Next week, U.S. President Joe Biden will host an inaugural "Summit for Democracy" that is meant to bolster his administration's stated goal "to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad." Biden began promoting the high-profile event during last year's election campaign and promised to hold it during his first year in office. After delays because of the coronavirus pandemic, the summit is finally here, albeit virtually.
But the Summit for Democracy has been compromised before it even begins. In the Middle East and elsewhere, the U.S. government's continued arming of authoritarian rulers undercuts democratic movements and entrenches the very governments that democratic reformers and civil society leaders struggle to unseat. Instead of using the summit to offer empty platitudes and issue bland policy statements about "defending against authoritarianism" and "promoting respect for human rights," imagine if the Biden administration acted boldly and announced an end to military aid and weapons sales to authoritarian governments that systematically violate human rights and thwart democracy. By refusing to support autocrats that leverage U.S. military aid to remain in power indefinitely, the administration could remove one of the biggest impediments to democratic change and incentivize would-be authoritarians to allow their citizens a greater role in their country's political life and governance.
Since Biden first pledged to convene a global summit on democracy, his administration has persistently argued that hosting this summit will advance its strategic objective of challenging the rise of authoritarian governments around the world. Biden remained committed to hosting this summit even after the Jan. 6 insurrection and criticism from foreign rivals and U.S. policy experts that the United States could benefit more from looking inward to address its own democratic shortcomings than from hosting a summit extolling the virtues of American democracy. Commentators also criticized the summit for presenting authoritarianism and democracy as an oversimplified binary and for creating an event that serves merely as a pretext to further condemn geopolitical adversaries, most notably China and Russia.
While these criticisms have merit, the summit still offers an important opportunity to support democratic reformers, particularly those in the Middle East and North Africa, where authoritarian rule and repressive governance dominate. The need to support democratic reform there has never been greater, as the recent military coup in Sudan and the ongoing presidential coup in Tunisia have all but eliminated democratic governance across the region, bookending a string of painful setbacks since the heady moments of the Arab Spring. The Biden administration can provide democratic reformers within the region a great deal of support simply by refusing to arm authoritarian leaders like Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. This decision would also help demilitarize U.S. foreign policy, an important goal in itself, and a much-needed recalibration after two decades of forever wars that have cost much and delivered little.
Instead of using the Summit for Democracy to offer empty platitudes, imagine if the Biden administration announced an end to military aid and weapons sales to authoritarian governments that systematically violate human rights and thwart democratic reform.
- John Hursh
The Middle East and North Africa is the least free and least democratic region in the world. The region also receives—by far—the most military aid and arms sales from the United States. After decades of false starts and missed opportunities to foster democratic reform, it is time to acknowledge that this relationship undermines democratic progress and threatens basic human rights. The historical evidence is unambiguous, and it is clear that supplying authoritarian regimes with massive amounts of weapons leads not to democracy and peace, but to stifling repression and entrenched military dictatorships and unaccountable monarchies that escalate conflict and terrorize their citizens. Moreover, U.S. military aid and arms sales have not made the region more secure, nor increased U.S. influence in recipient governments.
The Biden administration currently plans to invite Iraqi and Israeli government officials to participate in next week's summit. Few government representatives from countries in the region deserve inclusion in an event designed to revitalize democracy, but the Iraqi and Israeli selections are problematic nonetheless. In Iraq, the October parliamentary elections had the lowest voter turnout since the United States invaded the country in 2003, at 41 percent. The majority of Iraqi voters expressed themselves by choosing not to vote— refusing to participate in what they consider a compromised political process captured by a corrupt political elite.
The inclusion of Israel is even more problematic. Israel is increasingly recognized as an apartheid state. It has occupied Palestinian territory for more than 50 years, imposed a suffocating blockade on Gaza for the past 15 years, and is now annexing large tracts of land in the West Bank that it has successfully depopulated of Palestinians. To allow Israeli officials to participate in an event meant to strengthen and defend democracy—especially after Israel's recent attempt to designate six leading Palestinian human rights and humanitarian organizations "terrorist" entities—threatens the credibility of the entire summit. Moreover, inviting officials from a country that imposes military rule, not democracy, over much of the population under its control devalues the struggles of democratic reformers and invites more criticism of U.S. hypocrisy.
Israeli politics have undoubtedly hardened over the past few decades, in part because short-term military and security solutions have prevailed over solutions to secure equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. Since World War II, no country has received more foreign and military aid from the United States—$146 billion in all—than Israel. Israel's massive military advantage, secured by an annual $3.3 billion in U.S. military aid, allows Israeli leaders to fortify their gains while squeezing Gaza and the West Bank into uninhabitable spaces for Palestinians and simultaneously annexing Palestinian territory for Israeli settlers. And while this enormous sum has made Israel's military a thoroughly modern and lethal fighting force, it has, paradoxically, made peace and democracy less attainable for Palestinians and Israelis alike by eliminating Israel's need to compromise.
Then there is Egypt, whose government has received $1.3 billion in military aid from the United States every year since 1987, an amount second only to Israel. But such a huge and steady influx of military aid has not made Egyptian leaders receptive to U.S. requests for even modest democratic reform or adherence to minimal human rights standards. Quite the opposite. Conditioning U.S. military aid on specific democratic benchmarks or human rights requirements has also failed to nudge successive Egyptian governments toward the most rudimentary reforms, much less democracy itself, as U.S. officials have typically exercised a "national security waiver" that allows Egypt to receive this conditioned aid despite its obvious abuses.
The U.S. government cannot credibly champion democracy around the world while also serving as the primary exporter of the means of repression for undemocratic and openly authoritarian leaders.
- John Hursh
Earlier this year, the Biden administration made history by not issuing this national security waiver on $130 million of a possible $300 million of conditioned military aid. While cheered by some, this misguided decision was unfortunate because it in fact signaled to the Egyptian government, yet again, that it had little to worry about should it not meet the congressional conditions to receive this aid. The great majority of the aid—$1 billion—was not conditioned whatsoever and the Egyptian government failed in every conceivable way to meet the requirements to receive any of the conditioned $300 million, but still got more than half of that amount, $170 million. Those conditions included vague provisions to strengthen the rule of law, democratic institutions, and human rights in the country, and to implement civil society reforms—none of which the Sisi government did.
Instead, under Sisi, Egypt today is more authoritarian than ever, with more than 60,000 political prisoners jailed or detained, torture astonishingly widespread and systematic, and extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances increasingly common. Sisi, himself a military man, secured power in large part by ensuring that Egypt's military elite would continue to reap the financial benefits of the military's outsized participation in the Egyptian economy. At the same time, though, the military remains an ineffective fighting force, despite receiving $47 billion in U.S. military aid over the past four decades. Indeed, Egyptian armed forces have struggled to defeat an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula that has at most about 1,200 overmatched fighters.
The U.S. government cannot credibly champion democracy around the world while also serving as the primary exporter of the means of repression for these kinds of undemocratic and openly authoritarian leaders. Of course, the multibillion-dollar U.S. defense industry would object to restricting such arms sales. Its lobbyists in Washington would no doubt insist that there would be extensive U.S. job losses and other economic fallout, and that China and Russia would simply step into the void and provide similar weapons.
These and other doomsday scenarios are unpersuasive. Job losses and other resulting economic woes from cutting off arms sales are overstated, and recent studies show that federal spending on domestic programs leads to greater job growth than investing in defense and military spending. China and Russia already provide weapons to some of the same authoritarian governments that the United States does, and preference for and reliance on U.S. military technology should not be discounted. It is easy to be pessimistic, but at least some authoritarians may be just as likely to concede to demands for democratic reform than risk losing their vaunted access to U.S. military aid. More importantly, the financial well-being of the U.S. defense industry should not drive U.S. foreign policy, just as the blessing of an autocrat should not supplant America's commitment to democracy.
When he came into office, Biden promised "to put human rights back at the center" of U.S. foreign policy and to lead "by example" by defending democracy at home and abroad. Now, nearly a year into his presidency and on the eve of his much-anticipated Summit for Democracy, he has failed to deliver on key aspects of that promise, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. This summit offers a historic opportunity for Biden to act boldly and fulfill his pledge by refusing to rearm authoritarian states that currently have no incentive to pursue genuine democratic reform.