Secretary Gates meeting his Egyptian counterparts (source: Reuters via al-Jazeera)
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in the middle of an important trip to the Arab world, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, reportedly accompanied by Dennis Ross and with a focus on Iran and Gulf security issues. I'm generally very impressed with how Gates has performed as Secretary of Defense in both the Bush and Obama administrations. But there are at least two discouraging notes in his reported remarks in Egypt which caught my attention.
First, the general focus in the American headlines and Arab headlines alike has been on his reassurances to the Arabs about U.S. policy towards Iran -- no deal behind their backs, working to change Iranain behavior and prevent their acquiring nuclear weapons, opposition to any Israeli attack. This had all been widely previewed, and hardly comes as a surprise. I understand his need to reassure anxious Arab leaders, and that improved relations with Iran will not be their expense. Much of the Arab reporting, especially in government papers and Saudi-owned media, has responded positively to these reassurances.
But I found several of his public remarks aimed at dampening of expectations about rapid progress with the Iranians -- describing the prospects of a "grand bargain" as "very remote... very unlikely" -- to be a bit over the top and unhelpful in the current climate of pre-negotiations.
Such dampening is more appropriate where there are actually are high expectations. But it's hard to find such expectations anywhere outside of the fevered anxieties of Arab leaders such as Mubarak, obsessed with real or imagined Iranian plots against their regimes. Such leaders may too easily take such reassurances as an endorsement for their retreat into Bush era anti-Iranian agitation, which would in turn make the prospects for a U.S.-Iranian deal that much more difficult. I hope that his private conversations also emphasized the seriousness with which the U.S. will approach the engagement with Iran and held out the real prospect of success. Otherwise this could turn out to be a quite counter-productive mission.
The other way to read the remarks, of course, is that Gates's skeptical remarks reflect accurately the outcome of Dennis Ross's review of Iran policy. If that's the case, then it could augur poorly for hopes for a serious dialogue aimed at a serious transformation of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. We shall see.
Second, Gates reportedly said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that American military assistance to his country is not conditional upon democracy or human rights. I know this only because it is being reported on al-Jazeera. I have not been able to find a single mention in the Western press about this comment on democracy and human rights, but it's the lead story right now on al-Jazeera's website. There's been much debate and discussion of how the Obama administration would deal with democracy concerns; this reported statement by Gates would be one of the most direct and disheartening public statements yet of its downgrading.
I've written often about the importance of continuing to push for democratic reforms and to work to protect human, civil, and political rights in the Arab world -- especially in our Arab allies. It would be a major mistake to allow dissatisfaction with the Bush administration's methods tarnish the long-standing liberal foreign policy goals of promoting democratization and human rights. Such a downgrading would make it easier to work with the old Arab autocrats, no doubt, but it will carry a serious cost with Arab publics and with the rising generation of frustrated youth. Are the short-term contributions of the Mubaraks of the world really worth such long-term costs? Again, we shall see.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.