Note: This is a follow-up to my previous article on the Clinton speech, but stands alone also.
By Barry Rubin
In a speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asks:
“Why does America promote democracy one way in some countries and another way in others?”
Here’ s how the question should be rephrased:
Why does America subvert the chances for democracy one way in some countries and another way in others?
Here’s the answer:
In some places—notably Iran, Syria, and the Gaza Strip—America does nothing to promote democracy and the downfall of anti-American regimes because it is afraid to challenge the dictatorships. In fact, at times it comes to their aid and comfort.
In Iran, it did so by wasting two years on engagement and by failing to back the democratic opposition, even at the height of protests over a stolen election.
In Syria, by coddling the dictatorship until that became too obviously gruesome in backing such a bloodthirsty regime during an all-out revolt. Since then the U.S. government sub-contracted choosing the Syrian opposition exile leadership to the Turkish Islamist regime. Naturally, it chose a majority of Islamists. So this is the group that will be asked by the U.S. government for advice and be given money!
In the Gaza Strip, it helped the tyrants by pressing Israel to reduce sanctions and by doing nothing seriously to subvert that anti-American, genocidal revolutionary Islamist entity. Now it is empowering Hamas’s strongest ally, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which in power would give Hamas a huge amount of help.
While in other places—such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia–it enables anti-American, anti-democratic, antisemitic, dictatorial movements.
But if I were to take Clinton’s question at face value the proper answer would be this:
The United States should support democracy most energetically where it hurts enemies and is aimed against the most vicious, bloody dictatorships. That means Iran, Syria, and the Gaza Strip.
The United States should support democracy less eagerly when it hurts allies and the prospects are for a new regime far worse than the existing one. That means Egypt, Tunisia, and several other places. At any rate, in each such case U.S. policy should support genuine moderates and do everything possible to reduce the power of revolutionary Islamist and far left groups that are anti-American and anti-democratic.
Clinton explained U.S. involvement in Libya as being part of a broad coalition that worked “to protect civilians and help people liberate their country….”
Is U.S. policy going to defend civilians in Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip when they are threatened by Islamist regimes? No, it is going to help put those civilians in far greater danger . It is doing the opposite of liberating their countries. It is helping to enslave them.
“In other cases,” Clinton continued, “to achieve that same goal, we would have to act alone, at a much greater cost, with far greater risks and perhaps even with troops on the ground.”
Imagine the intellectual poverty of this statement. Is sending troops the only option? This is a trick known as setting up a straw man. We couldn’t help people in places like Iran or Syria, we are told, because we would have to send troops and since we don’t want to send troops we won’t do anything at all.
There are, of course, many other ways to act: to support the moderates through overt and covert means,, to consider establishing a no-fly zone, and to do everything possible to undermine the interests of those regimes. For example, a serious campaign to sabotage Syrian interests in Lebanon would make sense.
Instead we get a policy of helping Islamist groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Gaza, Libya, and even Syria.
“Our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans’ lives — including our fight against al-Qaeda; defense of our allies; and a secure supply of energy,”
Yes, the U.S. government is fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban, or at least a “faction” of the latter. But those are the only revolutionary Islamist forces it is battling.
Moreover, which allies is America defending? Give us a list. When an ally tries to defend itself, like Israel, Obama says he can’t stand Netanyahu because the Israeli leader won’t buckle under to make more risky concessions. Is U.S. policy defending Arab allies? No, with the partial exception of Iraq. It is enabling their foreign enemies and often suggesting–albeit implicitly–that those monarchies should be overthrown as well.
What about defending Saudi Arabia and Jordan? The moderate government in Lebanon, was overthrown because Washington wouldn’t help. If the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is so moderate and should be running the country why doesn’t that apply to Jordan, too?
Concluded Clinton, “What parties call themselves is less important than what they do.”
But doesn’t what parties call themselves have something to do with what they do? And what has the Muslim Brotherhood done that shows it isn’t a radical group? How has the Turkish regime behaved, at home and abroad, that shows it isn’t a radical Islamist government?
Finally, here’s something interesting. Consider Bahrain, which Clinton called a “challenge.” She explains, “Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.”
What’s going on there? A hardline Sunni Muslim monarchy that is friendly toward the United States is repressing a Shia Muslim majority. Among the Shias there are more moderate forces that just want fair treatment and more rights, and a radical Islamist faction backed by Iran.
The Obama Administration makes things worse. By backing Islamists, it has convinced the Bahraini government and its Saudi backers that compromise is impossible. The ideal solution would be to make a deal with the moderates and defeat the radicals.
But with the Obama Administration arguing that there are no radicals, how could Bahrain’s regime take such a risk even if it wanted to? The Obama Administration has thrown away all of its potential leverage over Bahrain’s government. By becoming the enabler for radical Islamists, Washington proves the hardline regime “correct” in arguing that compromise would bring disaster. If an election were to be held, the Shias who want a pro-Iran Islamist regime (and to throw out the U.S. naval base there) would win.
So let me say it again: The chances for a stable, moderate democracy in Arabic-speaking states were always slim. By being so weak in supporting the moderates and so energetic in backing the radicals, the U.S. government has destroyed those chances and helped to ensure years of bloody dictatorship.
Does this sound too extreme and alarmist? That’s because the policy is too extreme and dangerous enough to set off the alarms.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com