Putting People First: COVID-19 Reveals Shortcomings of US Approach to Security in the Middle East

Any account of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship worth its salt includes this anecdote about President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. On February 14, 1945, the story goes, FDR met with the Saudi King on board the USS Quincy, where they agreed that the United States would provide security for the Kingdom in exchange for access to Saudi oil fields.

The anecdote is often cited to show that oil for security has been the quid pro quo at the heart of the U.S. Middle East policy since WWII. Through President Richard Nixon’s “twin pillars” policy and the Carter Doctrine, which stated that the U.S. would use force in the region to protect access to the Persian Gulf, this exchange has remained at the core of the U.S. strategic approach. In recent decades, the U.S. has added counterterrorism and conducting proxy wars against regional rivals to its list of Middle East priorities.

In short, the focus of U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past several decades has been on using military tools to fight terrorists, wage proxy wars, and support dictators who promise to keep the oil flowing, to the neglect of human security, or the well-being of the region’s citizens. The global COVID-19 crisis exposes that this military-centric approach to security is both short-sighted and dangerous.

The Paucity of the U.S. Strategic Approach

The U.S. “War on Terror” is typically framed in globalized terms: President George W. Bush liked to say of terrorist groups, “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them [here].” This approach has self-evidently failed when it comes to reducing terrorism, as the 2003 intervention in Iraq spawned a brutal sectarian civil war and the rise of ISIS; al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates have sprung up from the Sahel to Kashmir and Indonesia; and U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan almost two decades after 9/11.  While the United States hasn’t experienced another attack on the homeland on the scale of 9/11, there have been a number of homegrown attacks inspired by trans-national jihadist and far-right ideologies.

Yet the “fight them over there” approach makes more sense when we think about how human security in the Middle East has a direct bearing on the security of everyday Americans.

While much is still uncertain, it seems clear that with most Americans on social distancing lock-down–and vast economic impacts becoming more inevitable by the day—COVID-19 will have a much larger effect on the everyday lives of Americans than the threat of terrorism ever has. Yet if budgets are an indication of priorities, the U.S. has systematically prioritized the global war on terror–on which we’ve spent $6.4 trillion since 2001, which averages out to $320 billion per year–over pandemic preparedness, which receives about $1 billion in annual federal funding.

Experts are already worried that the impact of COVID-19 “will be magnified” in conflict-affected countries. Countries across the Middle East are uniquely ill-suited to handle a public health crisis like a global pandemic. As Steven Cook notes, these governments share the problems of weak public health systems and governments that lack legitimacy to provide information and crisis leadership. This is true for even the best-situated governments in the region: those like the Gulf monarchies with plenty of oil wealth, reasonable levels of domestic stability, and long-standing security partnerships with the United States.

The worst-situated countries in the region are an even worse crisis waiting to happen. A decade of predatory proxy wars in countries like Libya, Syria, and Yemen has created a massive influx of refugees and internally displaced people. Many of these displaced people are especially vulnerable to the outbreak of contagious disease, since they often have little access to healthcare, live in overcrowded conditions with poor infrastructure, and are a low priority for political leadership. These populations are uniquely exposed to COVID-19, yet they are already facing cuts to services and anti-migrant violence heightened by fears about the spread of disease.

In fact, U.S. policies have, in some cases, actively harmed these societies’ resilience to a large-scale health crisis like the global COVID-19 pandemic. Sanctions on Iran have harmed Iranian civilians’ access to healthcare and essential medicines, despite carve-outs for humanitarian imports. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, with the support of the United States, has targeted Yemeni healthcare workers: According to the Yemen Data Project, over the five years of the Saudi air campaign, airstrikes have hit 83 medical facilities, including hospitals and clinics. The ongoing war has seen the largest cholera outbreak in epidemiologically recorded history.

But the U.S. approach in the region has also indirectly contributed to the creation of enormous vulnerable populations. In Libya, 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and 5.7 million Syrian registered refugees have fled the country since 2011, in addition to 6.2 million IDPs. Since early December, nearly 1 million civilians, many of whom were previously displaced from other parts of the country during the fighting, have been trapped between the advancing forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Turkish border. In Yemen, 22.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and more than 2 million have been displaced. While developed countries may be able to (barely) cope with COVID-19 via a scaled-up medical response and social measures to counter its spread, these societies are starting at a dramatic disadvantage.

In each of these countries, proxy actors supported by the United States as well as Russia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, and others have prolonged the fighting. And the U.S. approach to these proxy wars has focused on arming the right actors, and supporting them with airstrikes and U.S. special forces, with comparatively little attention to providing aid and other resources to alleviate the humanitarian consequences. In short, military approaches have consistently sidelined other foreign policy tools that could help make life better for people in these societies.

As the rapid global spread of this pandemic has so clearly illustrated, what happens to these populations will have a direct bearing on the well-being of Americans. An outbreak in one part of the world inevitably puts the rest of the world in danger. But prioritizing civilian well-being in the region would also have happy knock-on effects for America’s security as well, including by promoting economic growth, reducing incentives to join terrorist groups, and promoting governance that can help prevent widespread displacement and human- and drug- trafficking. In fact, a human security-centered approach would likely be even better at preventing terrorism than the tried and failed Global War on Terror that prioritizes military tools at the expense of diplomacy and development.

Policy Solutions

An approach to security that prioritizes human security–both of Americans and people around the world–would recognize the dangers of a strategy that has created so many vulnerable civilian populations. It would center and prioritize the well-being of these populations rather than securing access to oil, fighting terrorists, or arming government or proxy forces.

In the short term, the U.S. must take steps to reduce the immediate harm that COVID-19 will cause by caring for vulnerable populations and providing assistance wherever possible. This will include providing funding for sanitation infrastructure, healthcare facilities, and education for displaced communities.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the Obama administration deployed 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa and committed $6.2 billion in funding. U.S. troops helped build 17 treatment centers in Liberia and trained local and international health workers. The assistance helped contain the virus, contributed to a decline in infections, and generated international goodwill as the U.S. demonstrated leadership by coordinating the international response. While the United States’ first priority during COVID-19 will inevitably be dealing with the virus at home, once it is under control here, the U.S. can deploy military assets to countries with poor public health infrastructure to assist with logistics and augment their response capacity. The United States can also work with other countries via the CDC and through international organizations like the WHO to share best practices and life-saving innovations in research and development.

Recent escalations in Iraq between the U.S. and Iranian-backed groups, even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, are a cause for concern and source of potential spiraling instability. U.S. officials should focus on direct talks with Iran leading to at least a temporary truce so that both governments can focus on mobilizing resources to fight COVID-19. Such a diplomacy-first response–and a willingness to lift sanctions in a way that makes it easier for the Iranian government to respond to the pandemic in its country–could also serve as trust-building measures toward an interim deal to replace the Iran nuclear deal and tackle other security issues.

In the medium-term, the United States should also support community resettlement of refugees and asylum-seekers here and provide support to other countries to build their capacity to do the same. There are all kinds of moral and economic reasons to do so, but such measures will also help disburse populations currently living in poor conditions that will be vulnerable to future outbreaks of infectious disease. Countries can implement screening, testing, and quarantine arrangements to safely handle this process.

Most importantly, in both the short- and long-term, Americans must fundamentally reorient how we think about national security. Instead of securing the flow of oil, fighting terrorism, and arming proxies with terrible governance records, our Middle East strategy must elevate human security to a central priority.

Instead of relying primarily on military force, this approach would utilize a wide variety of policy tools, from foreign aid to diplomacy aimed at conflict prevention and resolution, to achieve its goals. This will mean using U.S. leverage and diplomatic resources to end proxy wars rather than arming our favored side; significantly boosting spending on foreign aid; revising our immigration policies at home toward accepting and resettling more immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers; and engaging with multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization in good faith to support international problem-solving on issues from pandemics to climate change that are not restrained by borders.

Security is about protecting people from the most pressing threats we face. Let’s get started now.

Image: Doctor Ali Ghazal holds an awareness workshop on Coronavirus (COVID-19) at a camp for displaced people in Atme town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, near the border with Turkey, on March 14, 2020. Photo by AAREF WATAD/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Alexandra Stark

Senior researcher at New America