10/31/2016 09:39 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2017

US Middle East Policy: Realpolitik or Wrongpolitik?

Today, the Middle East is in its worst shape since WWII--civil wars in Syria and Yemen; insurgency in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; unprecedented oppression in Bahrain and Egypt; heightened instability in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; little political freedom in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC, and not much better in Iran; and with the fallout of about 10 million refugees from Syria and Iraq alone and an additional 15 million or so people displaced from their homes, and yes, a terrorist organization like nothing the world has seen, namely ISIS hell bent on creating havoc in the region and the world over. How and why did all this come about? Is it just a moment in time or is it a landscape that could get even worse?

A complete answer to these two questions would take much time and thousands of pages. Luckily, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has penned an article in Politico that does an outstanding job. What we wish to do here is to focus on the underlying reason for the current state of affairs in the Middle East, namely, US and more generally Western support for oppressive rulers, which has trumped needed reforms to build effective institutions; this has, in turn, empowered terrorist organizations to pervert religion as their weapon of choice to expose the illegitimacy of Muslim rulers and to support what they advertise as the righteous fight against the Western backers of these rulers.

The standard reasons that some pundits put forth for the failure of these countries are to us simply wrong or misinformed. Islam is not the problem. If rulers in the Middle East had built and nurtured the institutions and rules recommended in Islam, we would see countries where justice rules supreme, with equality of opportunities and of income and wealth, absence of corruption, poverty and opulence, and communities that represent God's creation as one. Oil would flow no matter who was in control because producers must sell their oil to survive and importers need it for the same reason. Yes, the secretive Sykes-Picot Agreement before the end of WWI resulted in borders that represent the interests of England and France but gave no attention to the realities of different ethnic groups and religious sects within the artificial borders. Still, in almost every one of the newly created countries, people of different ethnicity, religion and sect adapted and somehow managed to live side by side. Of course the barrel of a gun, omnipresent security forces and superpower backing kept illegitimate and oppressive rulers on top and maintained stability. The status quo could not last forever and upheavals were sure to occur as they have in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and yes with more to come, especially in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. All the while, opposition forces have gathered steam. They have used their twisted misinterpretation of Islam as the rallying cry to attract recruits.

Who is to blame for upheavals? Invariably, the finger is pointed at the US for selfishly supporting oppressive rulers who did its bidding. US backing presents a flashing billboard for terrorists to attract an unlimited pool of disenfranchised masses. The best evidence of failed policies might be the way in which US policies are perceived in the Middle East. The results of Pew Surveys show that seven of the top ten countries where the US is least popular in the world are in the Middle East. And in which Muslim country in the Middle East does the reader believe the people love Americans. The unexpected answer is Iran. To our mind the reason is simple-- for over 35 years the US has not supported the regime in Tehran, nor has it sold the rulers guns to keep their people oppressed; whatever system Iranians have, it is of their own doing; they cannot blame outsiders. The citizenry in Muslim countries do not "hate our freedom" as some have tried to tell us in the US. In Islam, the Almighty gave humanity the freedom to choose everything, even the belief system. If the Almighty had wanted to create perfect humans with predestined journeys He could have done so but instead He gave humanity its greatest gift--freedom, a freedom that Muslims should guard and no ruler should be allowed to expropriate. The human journey on this plain of existence is but a test.

We are not saying that the US should suddenly abandon its favorite dictators, as this would open the floodgates of upheavals, turmoil and unacceptable human suffering. Instead, we advocate making continued US support conditional on meaningful reforms subject to a reasonable timetable. At a minimum, reforms should include representative governance and the establishment of effective institutions that include the Rule of Law as the foundation of thriving economic and social systems. In this way, there is at least the chance of achieving a peaceful transition to more successful communities with governments that serve with the consent of the citizenry.

This seems obvious to us as the best policy for the United States and its Western allies. So why doesn't the US follow such a policy? Supporters of the ongoing policy of unconditional support for pliant dictators give a number of reasons. Some would say that we do not have sufficient influence to encourage fundamental reforms. We disagree. While this may be the case in some of the countries, we do not believe it is in the six countries of the GCC and Jordan, and arguably in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. We can guarantee the safety of rulers and of their wealth if they reform. Others would point to the disaster of the Arab Spring and advocate staying the course. Again, we believe that deprivation, the barrel of a gun and torture cannot maintain the peace indefinitely. There will undoubtedly be bumps in the road as countries reform because more than 70 years of dictatorships have taken a toll and countries cannot smoothly transition to representative and legitimate governance. It is for this reason that we suggest an effective and realistic timetable.

So why do we believe that the US has not followed a forward-looking policy that also represents its heritage and national values? Politicians, as anyone else, are most comfortable with the status quo, and see big change and the unknown as scary and risky. Moreover, while the US espouses democratic governance and respect for human rights, it is invariably "messier" to deal with representative governments than with vulnerable dictators who do our bidding; dictators can do what we ask, whereas representative governments have to worry about the reaction of their citizens and put important matters before parliament or the people for a vote.

But most important of all, we believe it is corporate and personal interests that drive, and in turn undermine, US policies toward the Muslim countries of the Middle East. It is not simply the flow of oil and the sales of arms, but our exports of all goods and services that solicit corporate lobbying. Moreover, the personal interests--such as lucrative consulting contracts, as well as donations to favorite foundations, universities and charities--of former US (e.g. President Bill Clinton) and other Western leaders (e.g. Prime Minster Tony Blair of the UK), cabinet members, generals and similar influential persons have increasingly become an overriding factor in shaping US foreign policy toward the Middle East. These influential Americans and other Westerners don't get the same financial consideration from the likes of EU countries and Canada, but Muslim dictators of the Middle East provide lucrative financial opportunities for greedy politicians to exploit. Former Western officials care about their here and now and care little about the fallout of their ongoing support for dictators. They lobby for their Middle Eastern clients and protect them from dangers such as exposure of their ill-gotten wealth. Why do these Muslim rulers give their badly needed national resources away when there is poverty in their own lands? They want influence and support to stay in power. There can be no other explanation.

In sum, myopic support for our favorite Muslim dictators may provide stability today but at the heavy price of fueling the terrorists' flame and catastrophic upheavals, which will come to pass with the only question being when? The US should make its support for Muslim dictators conditional on an orderly transition to representative governance with effective institutions; in so doing, the US would gain the respect of Muslims the world over and dowse the terrorists' flame. The US has the necessary leverage to affect such a transformation because it can guarantee the personal safety and protection of the ill-gotten wealth of those in power.