Should the United States accommodate its authoritarian allies in the Middle East to protect its national security interests? Is American support for democracy and human rights in the region anything other than rhetoric? Or is Middle East democracy a long-term American goal that is sacrificed to protect immediate interests like oil and security? Can the United States pursue a long-term strategy in the Middle East or is it condemned by its electoral cycle to focus exclusively on short-term goals?

POMED Executive Director Tess McEnery discussed these questions with Ezzedine Fishere, an Egyptian writer, former diplomat, and Senior Lecturer at Dartmouth College, for the January 15 episode of his podcast “Making Sense of the Middle East.” The below transcript of their discussion has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.


Ezzedine Fishere: Americans say that, yes, we would love to see democracy taking root in the Middle East, but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon—and why should we invest in it instead of just focusing on our strategic interests? What do you have to say for these Americans?

Tess McEnery: Well, I think it’s a misguided notion that democracy anywhere outside of America, including in the Middle East, is not a vital interest to us, to all Americans, that all corners of the globe are free, and respecting human rights. I think many of the challenges we see in America, whether it’s disinformation, or the misuse of artificial intelligence, or widespread corruption, or interference in our elections, those are all problems that are global in scope and oftentimes originate or are driven by actors in the Middle East; and they affect the people of the Middle East, too. So, if we’re going to address our own democratic challenges at home, and many of the issues that we care about every day, we can’t do that divorced from caring about them and supporting the people of the Middle East in pursuing their own freedom and democracy.


Yes, but strategic interests also require cooperation with the regimes that are actually ruling the Middle East. Those regimes not only are not democratic, but they’re very sensitive to U.S. pressure or intervention in trying to promote democracy. So, how do you break that knot?

Well, it’s very difficult to do—the joke in diplomatic circles is can we walk and chew gum at the same time—pursue differing and sometimes competing interests. But I would say that it’s a falsity that promoting and pursuing democracy and supporting democracy in our authoritarian allies is at the expense of other interests. Oftentimes, they’re mutually supportive. One of the arguments I make a lot is that our allies and partners do not become more reliable, the more authoritarian they get. They often become more unreliable and unpredictable. They foment other conflicts outside of our control. And so it’s in the United States’ best interests to support through whatever gradual or not so gradual process of democratization that’s possible with these authoritarian partners.

I will also say that a lot of those goals you outlined—military, counterterrorism—have not, in fact, achieved success or progress with our authoritarian allies, and we have a lot of problems measuring and evaluating our actual progress. I think some of the counterterrorism objectives, for example in the Sinai, have been unfulfilled for years and, in fact, exacerbated oftentimes by United States support. But that is often used as a reason, for example, for why we overlook human rights problems or crises or issues in Egypt—and that can apply to many other countries in the Middle East that we often make blanket statements about—and for why we should not focus on human rights, because we have these other competing interests. But we don’t seem to be achieving progress on many of those interests. So I think it’s not an easy “either/or” statement. And we won’t make comprehensive progress on all interests at once, but I think we can do better pursuing human rights interests among our others.


So let’s take the example of Saudi Arabia. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for managing the global energy market. You have seen consequences directly at the gas pump when this doesn’t happen. So how would you do this? Let’s say this is walking; how would you chew gum at the same time?

I think the difficult answer that is not very satisfactory is that we should have been making changes years ago to our longer-term global priorities such as energy consumption. The reason we find ourselves in the situation with Ukraine, and looking to Saudi Arabia for more oil, is because we made very little progress on transitioning to clean energy and diversifying our sources of energy. And one might think that facing the crisis with Russia and Ukraine and facing an energy crisis might push us to make rapid and radical investments in new technologies to address climate change and to have renewable sources of energy. As you point out, it’s very difficult when looking at domestic politics to allow the American people to suffer through these challenges in order to pursue a longer-term strategy, but I think it’s to our detriment if we keep making these short-term choices with our allies like Saudi Arabia that don’t at all enable a clean-energy transition. And we find ourselves making the same trade-offs for two, five, or 10 years, until the oil is run all the way out, and then we’ll be forced to make rapid changes on our energy consumption and our relationship to countries like Saudi Arabia without a lot of advanced notice or long-term planning, which we are very common at doing.


I think a lot of people would agree with you. A lot of people maybe also in the administration today would agree with you. But then the typical answer you get is, we’re here, this is where we are today. And you’re right, we should have done this 10 years ago, but we haven’t, so we’ve got to deal with what we have. And what we have is dependence on oil; what we have is Saudi Arabia as the largest producer with Russia. And for all practical purpose, we depend on them, they know that we need them, and they use it. Even if we talk to them about human rights, they’re going to listen to us politely, but then it’s not going to be effective. So how would you go about dealing with that?

I think the unfortunate answer is that our advocacy to them on energy issues doesn’t necessarily get us what we want either, which we saw with the OPEC+ decision. Handshakes and better relationship building and what we thought were the deals we were making, were not the deals that we were given. And I think that demonstrates to us that making concessions on human rights, and allowing for a lot of space for our authoritarian partners to behave in the way they do, in order to get favor, doesn’t actually turn out as often as people like to claim.

There’s not an easy answer of exactly how to get a better relationship, a mutually beneficial relationship with greater attention on human rights from our Gulf allies, but I think retreating to the “we need to do the same old, same old and keep offering them concessions in order to get our oil deals” has proven that it’s not working. And in fact, we make arguments that we don’t want to enable Russia or we don’t want our allies turning to Russia and/or China, whether on energy or military or economic partnerships, and yet they are anyway. Even when we are giving them favoritism and even when we are overlooking human rights issues, they still are turning to what we have termed publicly, the United States, as our authoritarian competitors.


You have worked in the State Department, USAID, and the National Security Council on these issues. So you’ve been in different seats working on this. The rumor is that people who work on democracy promotion are the weakest link in American decision-making. How would you respond to that?

Well, I would say, regardless of administration, and over time, it is no secret that people who work on human rights or conflict prevention or what I would call our functional issues that span the globe, are often the weakest in the government by design. The regional—


—What do you mean ‘by design’?

‘By design’ in that the regional bureaus and offices across departments and agencies in the U.S. government are the most powerful. They cultivate bilateral and multilateral relationships directly with our allies and partners. They’re the experts on the region. They are the power sources for how we make decisions. And, by design, the more technical and functional people who focus on these human rights issues find themselves trying to make long-term monitoring and evaluation-based strategic cases and an environment that is really oriented around short-term crisis decision-making. So I think it’s an institutional problem rather than necessarily a problem linked to specific people or administrations. Something that my colleagues and I over the years talked a lot about is: how do you encourage the entire executive branch and the entire legislative branch to fund and plan democracy-support activities in a long-term way? It’s not designed to do that.

And so you have many, many smart people in all of the institutions you mentioned, USAID, the State Department, the White House, even the Department of Defense, Treasury—lots of different sources of power in the U.S. government—working at the lower and mid and high levels, trying to find any entry point for introducing long-term strategic decision-making. But I think because of bureaucratic and human nature, it’s very, very difficult. And I don’t imagine that would change, absent an administration or a leader that really has radically different thinking.


I’m glad you mentioned that, because, for someone like me who’s coming from the Egyptian bureaucracy, which is reputed to be dysfunctional, we usually looked up to the U.S. government and administration thinking, that’s a functional model. But it seems, the more I tried to understand how this government work, that there seems to be a problem dealing with long-term issues. There is like a tyranny of short-term. And that could be explained to a certain extent by the electoral cycle, but still is bizarre given that this is, after all, a great power. How do you explain that?

You mentioned the electoral cycle. I think that’s very important, in fact, because a great pride of the American system is, in fact, the expansive civil servant, foreign service bureaucracy. They are apolitical, technical experts who carry out their job no matter the administration. But every four years or eight years, the overall political priorities, most of them short- or medium-term, are sometimes radically reset. And so it’s difficult even for the vast giant bureaucracy of technical experts who are really great at their jobs to, in every four years—and sometimes shorter, because political appointees come and go even shorter than the four year cycle—to convince new people and to build new plans.

I’m a huge, strong believer in building strong civil services, because, I think—I like to count myself as one of these people—people who have been or were in the government for a long time, take that long-term view. I was in the government for 15 years, and the reason I really enjoyed it and survived is that I saw that democracy support, institution building, and all of my work at all the places I worked was not a one-year project or a two-year project, it was, in fact, a 15-year project. So I think some of the boring answers about how to do this better is to build training, institutional, and professional development opportunities for civil servants to stay in the government and really build that expertise.

And then, of course, you need to have some sort of long-term engagement in planning at the political level. That’s much harder to solve and some of the fixes are quite boring and people don’t want to talk about them. It involves changing the appropriation cycle, changing how Congress and the president formulate their budgets. I mean, it is something as anodyne as how to formulate a budget that determines whether you can make a long-term plan or a short-term plan.


It seems that the U.S. government needs institutional reform to be able to promote institutional reform elsewhere.

Every government really needs institutional reform and what I would call public administrative capacity building. I often made this comparison when I did all of my work overseas, that the least attractive and least exciting work to do is reforming and building public administrative institutions, but it is often what does push for transformational change, often more so than high-profile electoral activities.


Okay, I want to go back to your idea that promoting democracy is a U.S. national security interest and not just an idealist goal that clashes with the realist goal. And I want to remind you of the Obama speech in 2011, just after the Arab Spring started, where he said, yes, we do have this idealist and realist agenda, but today, given the Arab Spring, the two are coming together and that enables us to do things that we couldn’t do before. Also, the now defunct Freedom Agenda, if you remember, pushed the same argument. However, both were defeated by developments in the Middle East. In the case of the Freedom Agenda, the disasters in Iraq practically killed that idea. In the case of the Arab Spring, the disasters in the region as a whole killed that idea. Is there a way of actually bringing the two agendas together? Do you have a feeling that the current administration is even contemplating that?

Well, I think what used to be called the Freedom Agenda has different contours in every administration. For this administration, it is certainly the struggle between democracy and autocracy, primarily defined as the struggle with an ascendant China, and now with the conflict in Ukraine-Russia as well. But I think expanding that conception of a struggle between democracy and autocracy is not just about those two countries, but it is, in fact, especially about our autocratic partners who are emulating or copying the behavior we’ve identified as globally destabilizing from countries like Russia and China. And I think that is an approach that could be utilized to bring these idealist and realist agendas together. I think, to date, they’ve been weaponized against one another. For example, leveraging our relationship with the Gulf and other Middle East allies is, in fact, what we need to do to counter China. I think that is not necessarily a well examined idea. I don’t necessarily think it’s backed up by facts on the ground. And as we’re seeing global kleptocratic networks that are supporting the war in Ukraine and other issues that we really care about, are in fact, advanced and safe havens by our own autocratic partners in the Gulf.

So in order to advance a real, a hard politik interest we have with Russia in Ukraine would, in fact, necessitate hard conversations with our Gulf allies and discussions about their adoption of surveillance technology, and where they buy this technology, and how they shelter Russian oligarchs. So bringing together the idealistic aspirations of the people in the Middle East for their own freedom with the United States’ really global national security interests in relation to what they have articulated in Russia and China. I think it’s possible, it just requires greater creative thinking and a little courage. I would say it’s possible in this administration, but per your point earlier, it would really depend on the strong pro-democracy voices in the White House and other places in the administration being elevated more than they are today. And I would really heartily wish to see that.


What do you think should or could happen that would enable those voices to make more sense to decision-makers in the White House?

I think a lot of the time it comes down to personalities. As we all know, at the end of the day, a strong undersecretary or secretary is really where the power lies. I think the secretary of state, the administrator of USAID, and others have at times been quite strong in their human rights language, but it’s a far cry from the claim that we will ‘center’ all of our foreign policy around human rights. So I’d like to see a confirmed assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department. That’s woefully needed. I’d like to see a lot more confirmed positions across the bureaucracy in democracy, conflict, humanitarian-related positions across the United States government. I would also love to see the coordinator for democracy role at the White House National Security Council filled again after the departure of the incumbent.

So there are sort of personality and personnel issues that could be addressed to elevate these issues. And then I also think it, of course, comes down to institutional structures as well, and empowering those democracy and human rights-related bureaus and offices across the government to participate in this sort of daily drumbeat of country and regional processes. They’re often excluded. And I think there should be some organizational reforms that really put them at the center of those processes.


Let me take you a little bit out of Washington, D.C., and look at U.S. partners, especially in Europe and other democracies, who look at the situation in Washington and the US and say, you know, maybe the US is not really in a position to champion democratic values, given everything that’s happening here. Maybe they don’t have enough energy to focus on this given that they have to focus on, you know, what’s happening on Capitol Hill, for example, next election preparations. Do you think there is a point in there?

I certainly understand this feeling. I have heard it many, many times in my career. I would say, from a very bureaucratic point of view, the domestic and foreign affairs facing pieces of the US government often don’t talk to each other in a way that I think is helpful for international democracy promotion is that the forces in the United States government that can have international cooperation on democracy issues are not the same—oftentimes, they’re not the same contending with domestic issues. And that can be helpful in cooperating with European or other partners.


But on this, President Biden has been saying that this is a fight for democracy, both at home and abroad. He had this idea of a coalition of democratic, right, countries and so on. But somehow, this doesn’t seem to filter in, in policies to promote democracy, for all practical purposes, democracy promotion as a policy seems dead. So how do you explain this kind of contradiction in what the President keeps saying and what seems to be transpiring out of his administration?

I mean, I would push back a little bit just citing the Summit for Democracy, which is obviously a presidential priority for supporting and promoting democracy across the globe. I think the difficulty is that we’ve moved a little past the democracy promotion language, which those of us who have worked in the space for so long have used for many, many years. And I saw quite a pivot in this administration towards terms more like ‘democracy support’ and ‘institution building’, to enabling local actors to advance their own democratic aspirations, which I think is an appropriate and good pivot. But you are right in that what does that mean for all arms of the United States government? And how do we bring them together to advance these goals, the Summit for Democracy—there will be a second one in 2023—attempt to advance this.

But I would say per your point earlier about other allies, looking to us is that we can’t advance any of these goals without allied support, I think the administration made a very good pivot towards looking for multilateral approaches to democracy support across the globe. But I would say there’s a real need to institutionalize these forums. To make them more effective. There has been increased cooperation with the EU, for example, on sanctions and human rights standards for technology. Those types of forums need to become more global in nature, they need to be occurring in other regions as well. Speaking of the Middle East, the Middle East is often exempt from regional or global initiatives on—whether it’s anti corruption or online-based harms against women—a lot of times you don’t see Middle Eastern countries participating. And so I think that’s a definite area for improvement, and that we need to stop relying on traditional, what we would argue our well-capacitated allies to carry out this agenda. And the agenda needs to be truly global.


My last question, and I kept it to the end for a reason. I think you’re more than familiar with the complaints from Arab players that the United States is not really serious about them, that this democracy and even human rights suspect is just a political weapon that gets used when the regime is not following enough the dictates or the desires of Washington. Look at Iran, for example; look at Bahrain, when the United States, in the middle of the Arab Spring, turned a blind eye to repression in Bahrain. And you know, you’ve heard those examples, there is many more. Again, what do you have to say about that?

I would say it’s a very astute observation that it is much more difficult for the U.S. government to hold accountable its partners and allies for human rights abuses. This is a common argument inside the US government all the time between the democracy champions and those focused on regional work, which is, we need to be holding our partners and allies to exactly the same standard as we would call our competitors. But obviously, in practice, we don’t. We often hold our competitors or our adversaries to much higher standards. So I want to acknowledge that as a reality. It’s a true and accurate impression. That said, I would say not to lose heart, because there are many components and elements of the U.S. government that are dedicated to advancing the argument that that needs to change.


But it seems that those components lack the power. That’s clear. Can they get the power just from within the mechanics of government or do they need external allies in the American society in order to get a higher voice?

I think, definitely, they need allies in the broader society and the American public. And I think this is one of the areas that both the United States government and advocates and champions and outside have often overlooked, which is just the American public or the global public understanding at a personal level why democracy and human rights at home and abroad should matter to them and enlisting their help in listing their advocacy to their Congresspeople and to their leaders. So I think that’s a very good point and maybe podcasts like this can help.


Maybe, Tess McEnery. Thank you so much for discussing this with us today.

Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

Listen to the full episode here.