Obama Prioritizes Security over Democracy in Middle East

by Henry Johnson

In an impressively detailed report on the president’s budget request for FY2016, experts at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) make it clear that President Obama has prioritized the security of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East over domestic political reform. The president’s current priorities have belied the gushing support he once proclaimed for democratic transitions in the region. They also, however, reflect an interest in stymying the civil wars and resurgent terrorist networks that have ensued since the 2011 Arab uprisings. As the simplest illustration of this shift, POMED notes that in 2010, the US allocated 73 percent of its total foreign assistance to the Middle East and North Africa for military purposes and 7.4 percent for democracy and governance. The 2016 budget request widens the disparity by designating 76 percent of the total for military assistance and sets aside six percent for democracy and governance.

The administration has complemented its budgetary focus on security with substantive edits to the text of the appropriations bill, specifically the State and Foreign Operations and Related Programs. The authors highlight two changes  favorable to authoritarian regimes. The first one seeks to significantly weaken a provision asserting that U.S. democracy, human rights, and governance programs “shall not be subject to the prior approval” of any foreign government. The president replaces this language by stating instead that, “the Secretary of State should oppose, through appropriate means, efforts by foreign governments to dictate the nature of United States assistance for civil society.” As the report points out, this change, if enacted, would no longer prohibit the president from seeking such prior approval and removes the command imperative of “shall” in favor of the non-binding obligation of “should.” The second change undermines the current U.S. statute that immediately cuts off direct foreign assistance in the event of a military coup d’etat and doesn’t allow for its resumption until a democratically elected government has taken office. The president revises this clause to provide for the restoration of aid on the broad grounds that doing so serves U.S. national interests.

Notwithstanding the Gulf states’ much-publicized angst over the president’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, his budget signals a deepening commitment to the status quo of U.S. bilateral relations in the region. There are practical reasons for this. Altering the terms of U.S. relations to Middle East regimes would inflame domestic opponents of the nuclear deal and incite already nervous U.S. allies to more drastic actions. Over a certain period of time, the president had to choose between fulfilling the promises he made during the heady days when the Arab protests seemed poised to change the world and pursuing some level of détente with Iran. As much of the Arab world descended into either chaos or repression shortly after that first wave of hope, the president’s choice narrowed. This indecision was reflected in the president’s failure during his first term to offer the politically tough concessions needed to win Iranian cooperation. It has also now led many to criticize the president’s apparent “weakening” on Iran, as he moved from the untenable demand for zero-enrichment capability to his current, achievable non-proliferation goals.

The FY2016 budget request gives the public a glimpse into President Obama’s geopolitical framework for the nuclear deal and, more generally, U.S. relations in the Middle East. His marginally increased support for the region’s constellation of authoritarian regimes should put his dealings with Iran into perspective. On the one hand, he is strengthening them against threats, real and perceived, from domestic reform and from Iran. On the other, the president is expanding only slightly upon existing security arrangements, declining to upgrade their alliance status or forthright guarantee their security. Thus, the president is neither abandoning Arab allies for Iran nor decreasing the pressure on Iran from hostile states, still heavily armed by the U.S. A putative deal with Iran would greatly mitigate the risk of a regional nuclear arms race and create the possibility for tactical U.S.-Iran cooperation over key security interests. This stretches the flexibility of America’s position in the region, by committing it to neither side and allowing it to potentially play both off of each other—or bring them together.

The analysts at POMED, and many other Middle East experts as well, disagree with this version of security. They argue that leaving the authoritarian tendencies of U.S. allied-regimes unchecked will ultimately lead the disenfranchised masses, in the worst-case scenario, to violently overthrow their regimes. Rather than reward the backsliding of Arab allies in Egypt, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia, the U.S. should, they argue, place greater emphasis on promoting domestic freedoms and rights. Two overarching realities confront this recommendation. First, if these non-democratic regimes perceive the US as overly burdensome and disagreeable, they could eject the US from the regional balance of power. Second, Congress at this point seems incapable of managing such a transition.

Incapable of or unwilling to alter the undemocratic status quo in the Middle East, the Obama administration has fallen back on the more conventional US option: providing weapons to our friends in the region. The decision to blankly accept the regressive policies of U.S. allies does not push the region any closer to finding a viable political or ideological alternative that counteracts the growth of extremist groups. For example, as negotiations between the Bahraini government and its civil opposition broke down, and the country’s parliamentary elections lapsed into a flawed referendum on the monarchical status quo, the U.S. State Department declared it “an important opportunity to address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.” The dissonance between popular discontent in the Middle East and the U.S. approval of arguably illegitimate political systems will likely not end well. It may come as a small surprise that the most promising models of democracy in the region—mainly Turkey and Iran—are situated in countries with limited or confrontational relationships to U.S. imperialism.

Photo: Voters in Iraq

Henry Johnson

Henry Johnson is a writer and analyst of Middle East affairs with a focus on Iranian foreign policy and politics. He is also senior political analyst for DRST Consulting.



  1. Obama’s words and his actions have varied in many areas, not only this one. Anyhow the US is still a republic, not a dictatorship, i.e. the US doesn’t have a “young dictator” problem (either). The basic economic interests rule. That means encouraging friendships where the money is, which primarily includes the Gulf despots and Israel.

    And it turns out that one helps the other. Cozying up to the Saudi wahhabi non-democratic despot neuters his displeasure with Israel’s genocide against Palestinian Arabs, with Iran as a convenient foil as public enemy number one. It all works out, and democracy is never a real factor anywhere, including in the US. The fact that it would “ultimately lead the disenfranchised masses to violently overthrow their regimes” is never a factor. It’s what one has in the bank right now that counts.

    It’s –The Iron Law of Institutions: The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.– Jonathan Schwarz

  2. I agree. Security is a paramount necessity over democracy for every country in the ME! They have seen and experienced very bad examples of popular elections such as in Iran (1953), Palestine (Hamas), Egypt (Morsey) and to some extent in Syria! The external forces to the ME also prefer the dictatorships over semi-democratic systems in the ME. This is because the dictatorships are governed by a few imbecile dictators who are only concerned about having a limited wealth for their after life and a satisfied belly and the organs below their belly while in power!! These corrupt imbeciles are easier to be controlled while their resources are being robbed by the outsiders!!

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