Morality should matter in US' Gulf policy
By Hossein Askari
The United States' policy objectives in the Gulf since the end of World War II should come as no surprise - stability, a free flow of oil, and growing economies. Morality never comes up, but the US forgets morality at its own peril. It is only a matter of time before the America policymaking establishment will have to emerge from its comatose state.
The United States has been, and continues to be, entirely focused on short-run stability in large part because of corporate and personal business interests in the region. American companies buy and refine oil from the Gulf and sell billions of dollars worth of arms and other goods to the region; influential Americans (including former presidents and cabinet members), lobbyists and universities receive hundreds of millions of dollars annually in
retainer fees, gifts and charitable donations; financial institutions manage and advise on trillions of dollars of Gulf external investments; and thousands of Americans have found gainful employment with their savings flowing back to the United States.
These are significant economic interests that cannot be easily dismissed. Turmoil would undoubtedly endanger them.
So to avoid turmoil, the United States holds its nose and supports dictators and all associated evils - oppression, human rights abuse, corruption, the pillage of oil wealth by rulers and their cronies and on and on. And then the US points to stability as its policy success, forgetting what the abuse really means for its own longer-term interests and for the inhabitants of the region.
It is almost funny to point to stability as success. The barrel of a gun, imprisonment and torture are sure to bring short-run stability, but for how long and at what price? Such "stability" is eventually always followed by unimaginable turmoil and explosion; just look at Syria, Iraq and Egypt. And the longer oppression continues, the bigger the explosion that is sure to follow.
The US seems to forget that the region needs earth-shattering change - from the rule of dictators to modern institutions that ensure representative governance, freedom, liberty, equal opportunities, rules, regulations and supervision, and above all the rule of law and socioeconomic justice.
Such fundamental change from oppression to freedom and justice will by necessity involve turmoil, especially the longer the oppression continues under one dictator or his replacement. And the longer the US continues down this road of embracing dictators the more likely it is that the whole region, and yes even the entire Muslim world, will become its adversary.
The people of the Gulf cannot help but see the US as the main backer of their oppressive rulers who have corrupted Koranic teachings and have exploited religion for their personal gains.
In addition to stability, US policymakers invariably and frequently invoke the free flow of oil as a policy imperative. But just look around: when has Russia (or the Soviet Union, America's sworn adversary) held back its oil from world markets? Russia and all other exporters must sell their oil to survive. They want to sell their oil. No arm-twisting is ever needed for oil sales!
And even if an adversary refused to sell its oil to the United States, oil from somewhere else would come to the US and the adversary's oil would be redirected elsewhere (with some adjustments to refinery configurations). And yes, the US wants the economies of the Gulf to grow to buy more US goods and services. But again, the inhabitants of these countries also want their economies to grow.
It is almost an undeniable fact that the US wants stability for short-term economic gains. But the dangers with this approach increase by the day. The only viable way forward is for the US to "persuade" its clients that they must embrace (i) a transparent timetable for moving toward a representative system of government, (ii) a commitment to adopt effective institutions, and (iii) a constitution that affords all citizens liberty, basic human rights and socioeconomic justice.
Such a turnaround in US policy will require an injection of morality and risk taking in policy formulation. But without that, the US is sure to find itself on the wrong side of history.
Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.
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