Skip to main content

The leader of the free world must lead it

As published by the Middle East Institute by Mick Mulroy
Non-Resident Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Yemen Steering Initiative

The United States is often referred to as the leader of the free world, and we often claim that title for ourselves. Human rights should be an integral part of our foreign policy — and our domestic policy for that matter too. But to truly uphold the responsibility of being the leader of the free world, we as a country must be willing to engage with all countries around the world.

The United States has national security and economic interests that involve many countries that do not view the world as we do. We need to be consistent when promoting human rights and democracy, whether to friend or foe, but we also need to be consistent partners, not just when it is convenient for us.

President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East should focus on building our key regional partners to support us in our strategic competition with China and Russia. We need them to do this effectively as both China and Russia have expanded their influence throughout the Middle East and Africa.

We also need their partnership in the immediate term as Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine has driven up the cost of energy around the world. Our regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia, have spare capacity to help in this area, which will help maintain the alliance that has been built to support Ukraine.

Regarding Russia and Ukraine, we also need to explain that any country that agrees to the international rules-based order — and all current governments should since they directly benefit from it — should support those rules for all countries.

The war in Ukraine represents a much broader struggle than just an ideological one between democracy and autocracy. Those countries that stand on the sidelines should consider what they would expect from the international community if a larger neighbor decided to toss out international law and invade them.

Leaving countries to become significantly influenced by powers such as China, which currently has over 1 million people incarcerated due to their ethnicity, or Russia, which has already killed 20,000 innocent people in Ukraine, will do nothing to promote human rights around the world.

We also need our partners to assist us in developing a real plan to deal with the growing problem of Iran — one that does more than just point out the problems with the 2015 JCPOA. The United States and its partners need a plan that stops Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, addresses its malign activity, and brings it back into the international community. Right now, Iran is responsible for most of the instability in the region, and that needs to change.

According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Iran could be within weeks of having enough material for a nuclear weapon. That could cause a regional arms race, further embolden the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ malign activities by reducing their concern about the potential consequences of their actions, and even trigger a regional conflict if a country were to seek to mitigate that risk preemptively.

We also need our partners to help maintain the current cease-fire in Yemen and expand it into a more permanent peace so that we can end that devastating war, which has caused what the U.N. has deemed the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. We need to develop an international plan to make Yemen a fully independent state that does not need near-continuous aid and ensure it lives peacefully within the region.

What would our Middle Eastern partners gain from doing this? The best military partnership in the world. We need to help build their capacity for maritime security, advanced air and missile defense, border security, and counter-terrorism, and to develop the capability to fully integrate our partners into international military coalitions, be it efforts to defeat ISIS or respond to a humanitarian crisis. We need to develop actual capacity — not just the hardware, but the knowledge to use it.

The United States can do this like no other country can; our means of warfighting, disaster and humanitarian assistance, operational planning and execution, and our technology in areas like cyber, artificial intelligence, unmanned vehicles and aircraft, expeditionary logistics systems, secured mesh communications networks, intelligence collection and analysis, and sophisticated weapons and equipment, to name but a few, are superior to any alternatives.

The above should sound familiar, as it aligns with our National Security Strategy, a strategy that needs to be implemented at every opportunity and not just sit on bookshelves in Washington, DC gathering dust.

This is an opportunity to do so.

Follow on Twitter: @MickMulroy