Stop making excuses for Middle East's monsters and siding with 'lesser of evils'

On Friday, the Trump Administration defied a statutory mandate and refused to release a report on whether it has evidence that Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A day earlier, reports circulated that U.S. intelligence had intercepted the Crown Prince telling an aide that he would use “a bullet” on Mr. Khashoggi, who the Post acknowledged had ties to "Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis Qatar." 

This follows an unfortunate pattern of administration officials and others soberly proclaiming that as bad as one group’s behavior is, we should still support them because their opponents are worse.

This is nonsense. It is also a betrayal of America’s interests. And, above all, it is a betrayal of America’s values. We should not presume to judge which monster is worst.

Setting aside Israel and various outside powers backing clients, three major groups vie for power in the region: secular Sunni Muslim authoritarians, religious Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims.

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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince bin Salman, Egypt’s General al-Sisi, and the United Arab Emirates lead the informal alliance of relatively secular Sunni Muslim autocrats. Prominent religious Sunni states include Qatar and Turkey, whose economy Qatar just bailed out. Much of the rest of the Saudi royal family, the Afghan Taliban, elements of the Pakistani intelligence services as well as Al Qaeda and ISIS are also highly religious Sunnis. Our mishandling of Iraq’s occupation inhibited the growth of more secular Shiite forces. As a result, Iran leads a loose Shiite alliance including the regimes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the Houthi faction in Yemen. Major fractures exist within each of these groupings.

Arguing which faction is better is a fool’s errand.

All three are guilty of atrocities.

Saudi Arabia’s bombing and starving of Yemeni civilians and General al-Sisi’s gunning down of hundreds of peaceful protesters against his coup cannot be excused. Neither can the terrorism of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, or Syrian President Assad’s use of barrel bombs and poison gas on his own civilians or his reported mass murder of imprisoned dissidents.

All three factions can be quite ruthless in suppressing democracy. General al-Sisi has jailed and killed countless peaceful dissidents, achieving repression unmatched even by former President Mubarak. Muhammad bin Salman’s regime jailed dissidents, murdered Khashoggi, and has arrested and tortured women activists even as he basked in Western praise for letting women drive. Although Turkey rightly exposed and condemned Khashoggi’s murder, it leads the world in imprisoning journalists. Iran brutally suppressed the Green Revolution that arose after the regime rigged elections.

All three factions include devoted enemies of Israel. Secular Sunni military regimes launched the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel. Today Egypt is formally at peace with Israel but promotes paranoid anti-Semitism to distract its people from its economic mismanagementHamas and Islamic Jihad invoke religion to justify terrorism, as does the Shiite Hezbollah.

And all factions can be aggressively expansionist. Muhammad bin Salman apparently kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister and is trying to bomb Yemen into a client state. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have organized chapters across Asia and Africa. Shiite expansionism is limited by its minority status within Islam, but Iran has sought to project influence where it can.

To be fair, however, elements of all three groupings at times have acted admirably. Secular Sunnis have formed the backbones of pro-democracy movements in LebanonSyria, and elsewhere. They provided crucial support to Shiite pro-democracy activists in Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout.

Religious Sunnis led relatively successful pro-democracy efforts in Tunisia and have honored election results since. The Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing defied their elders to defend pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Qatar started the Al-Jazeera news network that, while imperfect, has broken state propaganda ministries’ monopolies on information throughout the region.

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And Iran supported the peaceful Sunni and Shiite pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain against massive, brutal repression orchestrated by the Saudis, the Emirates, and Bahrain’s king. Both Iran and the Houthis have opposed Al-Qaeda, and Iran has defended Afghanistan’s persecuted Hazara minority despite having no prospects of Shiite rule. Some ayatollahs — although not Iran’s Supreme Leader — have eloquently advocated democracy and tolerance.

Periodic grand alliances against “terrorism” (by which officials mean religious Sunnis) or against Iran (by which officials mean Shiites everywhere) will accomplish nothing and just play into the hands of secular Sunni despots whose repression drives extremism. 

Our real source of power in the region comes from our ideals.

Defending pro-democracy activists, human rights monitors, and journalists wherever they are threatened could save the lives of those who could lead the region to a just and stable future, something autocrats can never achieve. 

We missed a golden opportunity when we stood by after the Arab Spring as despots slaughtered secular democrats across the region. 

We need a new path.  We should immediately cease our support for the slaughter in Yemen, stop making excuses for the brutality of the Saudi crown prince and the Syrian dictator, and apply strict human rights conditions to our huge aid payments to Egypt. 

By returning to our values, we can lead by example and inspire secular democrats through the region.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.