Thursday, November 06, 2003

GOOD DICTATORS, BAD DICTATORS: President Bush discussed "freedom in Iraq and the Middle East" at the National Endowment for Democracy. In his speech, he praised Morocco, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In Saudi Arabia, the reforms are presented as a step toward new political openness, with partial municipal elections plan-ned by the end of 2004. In Egypt, the son (and likely succesor) of President Hosni Mubarak promised reform that would allow more freedom to political parties and unions. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI has proposed a multi-stage process of local council elections within a framework of other reforms that have been stalled since terrorist bombings in May. In Jordan, King Abdullah II has called for the establishment of a Centre for Human Rights, a Higher Media Council and revived parliament after a two-year hiatus. In Kuwait, there is an extensive debate in both the legislature and society at large about a women's bill of rights, as well as other reforms.

So how much reform are we really talking about in the Arab countries? A gift given is a gift that can be taken back. Arab regimes that are offering a small degree of political openness are doing this not as a matter of citizens' rights, but as a "noble" act of generosity done at the pleasure of Washington. The United states remains the guarantor of the survival of the old repressive Arab order, whose keepers will continue to use security and the excuse of conflict with Israel to delay real political and economic reform at home. As one unnamed Arab diplomat said: ''His treatment of the various governments reflects their policy towards the United States. The more you applaud him, the more democratic you are. It's transparent and it's ridiculous.''

The United States disregards human rights records in favor of praising pro-American dictators. What message does this send to the liberals and reformers?

UPDATE: Abu Aardvark agrees...

[T]he US has not often been on the side of democracy in the Middle East, and there is very little sign that this is changing. The fundamental problem has always been that real democracy could bring to power popular groups which are not supportive of American foreign policy. And faced with a choice between Arab democracy and national interests, the US has almost always chosen the latter, for better or for worse. That's the reality, which no amount of Presidential spin can change. And the complete collapse of public support for the US among Arab public opinion attests to the overwhelming skepticism about American intentions.
... and delivers these hard-hitting words.
If Bush genuinely wants to promote Arab change and democracy, great - and I really mean that. But look at the deeds, and see if they match the words. Arabs do. What does Bush actually say, and what does he actually do? There is, despite everything, absolutely nothing in the speech that suggests a serious willingness to prioritize democracy over support for American foreign policy goals. And, quite frankly, there is nothing in Bush's foreign policy team to suggest that they prioritize democracy (although I might make a partial exception for Paul Wolfowitz, for reasons I might get into later).
Did I tell you that Abu's blog is a must-read?


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