The day after US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson spoke at the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, on June 9, the violent extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, sending much of its population fleeing for their lives.
In the light of the alarming events taking place in Iraq and Syria over the past weeks, it is hard not to conclude that Patterson’s remarks struck the wrong note. Her speech, which focused on trumpeting America’s abiding strength as a military power, while no doubt true, rather misses the point.
The story of America’s bloody engagement in the region since the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 has shown all too well the limitations of what can be achieved by military force, however overwhelming it may be. The disastrous events now sweeping through eastern and central Iraq are only the latest reminder of that.
President Barack Obama came to power pledging to conduct foreign policy in ways other than through the use of military force, striking a chord with an electorate weary of seemingly bogged down conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. When he made his now famous speech to the people of the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, he promised a new beginning in relations between America and Muslims based on common principles of “justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Patterson recalled the language of the Cairo speech in her remarks, but there was barely any mention of human rights. Instead, she built on the president’s announcement in his remarks at West Point of a Counterterrorism Partnership Fund designed “to make the world more secure by helping our allies and friends defend their national security interests.”
Empowering the security forces of other countries to contain and counter violent extremists puts power in the hands of forces that often have very poor human rights records, creating more terrorists in the process.
Obama is aware of this problem. He said at West Point: “Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.”
Unfortunately, Patterson’s rollout of US strategy before key stakeholders in Doha omits what has to be a core element of any effective counterterrorism strategy: promotion and protection of human rights.
Gulf Cooperation Council states will no doubt have welcomed her soft-pedaling and omission of human rights, democracy, women’s rights and religious freedom, all of which are conspicuous by their absence in Saudi Arabia and the other Arabian Gulf monarchies.
They will also have noted her one-sided attribution of responsibility for the growth of violent extremists in Syria to the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard alone. These forces play a reprehensible role in fueling conflict in the region, but so does the American-backed Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.
Official and private sources in the Arabian Gulf region have also provided backing to many of the Sunni Islamist extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, and Patterson rightly noted the “need to cut off the flow of resources and fighters from this region to ISIL and other extremist groups.”
The conflict in Syria, now spreading into Iraq, has become increasingly sectarian between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Just as Iran and its allies have sought to advance their interests by fueling anti-Sunni sectarianism, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states have mobilized anti-Shi’a sectarianism to push back against Iran, thereby fueling an escalating conflict that US-backed partnerships will be powerless to contain.
The export and mobilization of religious extremism has long been a feature of Saudi foreign policy. Discouragement of the spread of human rights and democracy, coupled with sustained promotion of extremist, intolerant religious ideas and the direct support of violent extremist groups, seriously challenge the administration’s strategy.
The United States needs a comprehensive regional strategy that makes promoting and protecting human rights a central role. Gulf states should coordinate their economic support for Egypt with the US, European Union and multilateral lending institutions to encourage the Egyptian government to move forward with necessary economic and political reforms. US military force and partnerships with local allies that disregard and undermine human rights will bring only more instability and conflict and exacerbate the terrorism threat. ■
Hicks is director, Human Rights Promotion, at Human Rights First and a member of the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan group of policy experts that advocates for democratic change in Egypt.