Politicians the world over claim to support human rights in the conduct of foreign policy. They do so to project “humanitarianism and rightfulness,” but in practice they pay little or no attention to anything but narrow national and personal interests. While this may be the accepted modus operandi, it is an approach that invariably has dire consequences that may carry over for generations. The human mind cannot foresee the widespread fallout of an initiative, even if that initiative appears to be limited at the time, but initiatives that are supportive of basic human rights always propagate less resentment and lead to less vengeance and future conflict. If for this reason alone, human rights and morality should be inseparable from foreign policy formulation and practice. A good case in point is the U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s—a support laced with human rights violations and disastrous repercussions that are likely to continue for many more generations. Unfortunately, not only has the U.S. learned little from this episode but is today making a similar mistake in support of the Al-Sauds of Saudi Arabia that could have even more dire consequences.
Let’s go back to 1980. Iraq invaded Iran on Sept. 22. Iraq easily occupied a great deal of Iranian territory, because Iran was a country in disarray in the aftermath of a revolution. The United Nations did little to stop the conflict. The world supported Saddam Hussein and Iran was isolated with no ally except Syria. Within a short amount of time, the Iranians pushed the Iraqis out and were threatening Iraq’s southern city of Basra. Fearing the consequences of an Iranian victory, the United States and its European allies (the UK, France and Germany) facilitated the transfer of internationally banned WMD and their means of production to Iraq. Using these chemical weapons on Iranians, Saddam Hussein was successful in holding Iran at bay, resulting in tens of thousands of Iranian fatalities and huge numbers of permanently disabled. Later and most duplicitous, the U.S. and its Western Allies invaded Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had WMD and was dangerous; ironically, if weapons had been found they would have had their origin in the West!
But Saddam Hussein’s use of WMD with Western complicity and support has had other unimaginable consequences. Iran’s theocratic regime’s successful defense of its people, facing unprecedented isolation, has afforded it with its principal source of legitimacy and has kept it in power. The regime, with the support of its citizens, recognized that it could not rely on the international order for security. Tehran, again with popular domestic support, embarked on a program of nuclear enrichment as the cheapest and fastest path for defense. Iran supported and nourished Hezbollah for regional influence as a counterbalance to Western and Persian Gulf Arab pressures supported by the U.S. Iran was delighted at the U.S. invasion of Iraq and grabbed the opportunity to engineer the installation of a Tehran-friendly regime in Baghdad (Shia-dominated government reflecting Iraq’s Shia majority). Similarly, Iran supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and again when its enemies were somewhat neutralized, Iran saw this as an opportunity to influence a friendlier regime to moderate the threat of U.S. forces from the East. Moreover, given its experience since 1980, Iran, as is its right, has been committed to building its defenses against outside aggression. Surely, Iran’s need to take these measures is understandable after it was invaded, isolated and subjected to the only intrastate WMD attack on record since WWII?
Iraq’s use of WMD on Iran, the thousands of casualties in the war and the resulting motivation for Iran’s nuclear program have been acknowledged by no other than former Prime British Minister Tony Blair in a BBC Radio 4 interview on Aug. 10, 2017. As to be expected, Mr. Blair opportunistically forgot to mention the source of the WMD!
Yet today the U.S. is again embarked on a path that is likely to result in even more negative fallout and conflict in the future.
The Trump administration has openly set aside all consideration of human rights in its carte blanche support of the regime in Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes on earth—no religious or political rights (all churches, synagogues and religions besides the Wahhabi version of Islam are banned and with no election of rulers or tolerance of their criticism). As the U.S. affords the Al-Sauds unprecedented political and military support, sells them all manner of arms and gives them the cover of the “war on terror” to do as they wish, America is complicit in the crimes and abuses that the Al-Sauds are committing and will continue to commit. A partial list of Saudi human rights abuses, some of which have been referred to as crimes against humanity by independent observers include: the military crackdown and human rights abuses in Bahrain during the Arab Spring that continue even today, the beheading of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and other peaceful protestors in 2016, the imprisonment, torture and beheading of countless protestors since the Arab Spring, the siege and shelling of the Shia village of al-Awamiyah in Eastern Saudi Arabia since May 2017, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen; and in addition to these, the embargo of Qatar, an act of war, has caused undue hardships on tens of thousands of Qatari and foreign civilians.
These and other human rights abuses will have fallout that no one can even begin to predict today. America’s complicity in these crimes, all in the name of national interest and the war on terror, will bring America much shame. America will lose the moral high ground that had taken decades to nurture, affording it unprecedented global soft power. America will find itself on the wrong side of history. The turmoil that is likely to erupt in the Middle East will hasten America’s exit from the region. America will have lost the Middle East by setting aside its support of human and political rights for short-term commercial and personal gains.