How to End US Reliance on Dictators

The Arab uprisings present US foreign policymakers with their greatest opportunity for a decisive shift in direction since 1989. Will they seize it?

Unfortunately for the peoples of the former Soviet Union and East Bloc, the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations and their own new governments bungled the transitions to freedom and democracy. Former apparatchiks cast off their red stars for shiny new lapel pins, communists became fiery and sometimes murderous nationalists, and for fire sale prices, the men we call oligarchs took over giant state industries.  It took the GHW Bush administration several years to even realize the Cold War was over. Jeffrey Sachs’ brutal and myopic “shock therapy” was the best the US could muster by the way of economic advice during the nineties.

We live with the consequences of these historic failures–entrenched autocracies, world-class corruption, decaying economies, renewed international tensions—to this very day. The stakes are as high in 2011. Might the Obama administration avoid the mistakes of its predecessors when it comes to the current wave of democratic uprisings? (It’s too early to call them “revolutions”).

It will only be able to do so if it makes a clear and definitive break with the ruling foreign policy assumptions of the past sixty-five years, and with the climate of fear that helped engender them. Three of the most important of these interlocking assumptions are: (1) “stability” is the paramount goal when dealing with “America’s friends;” (2) American values are merely rhetorical weapons to be deployed cynically and selectively; and (3) what’s good for Israel is good for the United States.

“Stability” seems an odd goal for a country born in an anti-imperial revolution, and for one that professes to cherish liberty and democracy. But there it is, at the center of the foreign policies of president after president.

If you were an “anti-communist” despot in Latin America, Africa or Asia, you could rely on stability-enhancing military and economic support from the United States. You were automatically considered “pro-American.” An academic might even invent a framework that justified this support (Jeanne Kirkpatrick). You could get away with, or perhaps even be further enabled to murder, torture, disappear, and jail your “opponents” as long as you called them “communists.”

If you were a sheik or king in an oil-rich Muslim country, the sky was the limit as long as the petroleum flowed freely, your military bought American weapons and granted base rights to the US military and intelligence agencies, and your secret police oppressed nationalists, socialists, Islamists, and other troublemakers.

“Stability” remained central when the Cold War gave way to the Global War on Terror. Only the faces of “America’s enemies” changed; Washington traded in the “evil empire” for the “axis of evil.” The story is the same for American values in US foreign policy.

American values like “democracy” and “freedom” were and are bipartisan sticks with which to beat unfriendly regimes and disfavored peoples. They, sadly, are not genuine goals and metrics for US foreign policy. “Freedom” only mattered to US foreign policy during the Cold War as a club against “godless atheistic Communism.”  During the Global War on Terror, the target is “Islamofascism,” or less colorfully, “violent extremism” while propping up the Houses of al-Saud and Musharraf. The tumult in the Arab world is the latest challenge before citizens to separate rhetoric from reality.

Concern over stability might still trump support for liberation in North Africa and the Middle East. Fortunately for Egyptians, events got ahead of Foggy Bottom. Would Frank Wisner—well-paid lobbyist for Mubarak–be the special envoy to Cairo if the State Department were pursuing democracy rather than stability in Egypt?

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (and the others boiling in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere) happened despite not because of US foreign policy. Americans are the only people in the world not to know this–thanks to the US media’s internalization of the goals of US foreign policy. Cable companies do not carry Al Jazeera English even though the President himself was reportedly tuned in. Tunisians have not forgotten Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld’s friendly words for the Ben Ali regime. Egyptians understand that thirty years of US aid propped up the sclerotic and kleptomaniacal Mubarak regime. The inspiring events of Tahrir Square had nothing to do with George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” or Obama’s Cairo speech. Liberty is not a gift that can be offered or withheld by the United States.

Preference for “stability” over the uncertainties of liberation from dictators, and hypocrisy over American values are both evident in the case of US-Israel relations. Any honest person with genuine respect for human rights and international law—conditions that eliminate most members of Congress–long ago rejected bottomless US support for Israel. And yet there appears no Israeli crime too great for its friends in the US to cover-up or rationalize. This despite the clear connections between Israeli policy and the jihadi threat to America because of US support for Israeli policy. And despite the untold damage the relationship with Israel does to American values, US standing in the world, and the “stability” of Palestine. Can there still be doubt that Israel’s (in)actions harm American interests in the region and the world? Not long ago, General Petraeus let as much slip before he was forced to walk his comments back by The Lobby.

The worst-case scenarios of some foreign policymakers are nightmares induced by fear of change. What if Persian Gulf autocrats fall? Might we not be facing another oil embargo? No. Petrostates stay afloat by madly pumping oil and gas, not by withholding it from their best customers. The global reality of peak oil—whether already past, present, or future—ensures the spigot remains open. What if Islamists come to power in democratic elections (as in Gaza and Lebanon)? The President of the United States calls to congratulate the winner, and expresses hope for the future of the relationship. Respect for democracy demands no less.  Should democracy break out in the Middle East, will Israel find the new neighbors less willing to get paid by the US to play along with its colonization of Palestine? Absolutely. Again, respect for human rights and international law—‘declaratory’ American values—demands no less.

Might the crack opened by young Arabs in their decades-old American-backed regimes open a crack in public understanding of US foreign policy?  Stranger things have happened lately.

STEVE BREYMAN teaches politics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu


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Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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