Dictators or Democracy? The West’s “Arab Spring” Conundrum

It clearly took “western leaders” by surprise, this “Arab Spring.”

Their first instinct, as public squares filled with protesters demanding change, was to support and pay tribute to their long-time friends who were suddenly under siege. On January 12, French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, fresh from a Tunisian vacation in December, offered Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali assistance as the protests grew. She suggested that French police train the Tunisian police because the “skills, recognized around the world, of our security forces allow us to resolve security situations of this type.” Even as human rights groups reported fifty dead, French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire declared, “President Ben Ali is often judged unfairly, he’s done a lot of good things for his country.” As Tunisia’s former colonial ruler and largest trading partner, France had been more than satisfied with Ben Ali’s performance during his 23 years in power. So had Italy, Tunisia’s second largest trading partner. (SISMI, the Italian military secret service, had helped bring him to power in 1987 through what SISMI former head Fulvio Martini later called “a kind of golpe.”) So had Britain, whose special trade representative, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, had been wined and dined just last year by Ben Ali’s extended family including some now under investigation for money laundering.

The U.S. State Department, which had counted Ben Ali a key ally in the War on Terror, responded with caution. On January 7 it issued a statement calling on “all parties to show restraint as citizens exercise their right of public assembly.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Al Arabiya on Jan. 11 that the U.S. was “not taking sides” in Tunisia but said, “we are worried, in general, about the unrest and the instability, and what seems to be the underlying concerns of the people who are protesting.”

Only on Jan. 13 did Paris begin to see the handwriting on the wall, and the need to distance itself from its longtime ally. It condemned Ben Ali’s “disproportionate use of force,” a few days later abandoning him and even banning him from France. President Sarkozy started thinking seriously about how to engage this new situation, siding (for appearances sake) with the people. Meanwhile on January 14, the day that Ben Ali fled the country, President Obama finally announced, “I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people.” He followed up two weeks later with words of praise for the protesters in his State of the Union address, referring to the “desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator…. The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

This almost gives the impression that the U.S. had been supporting the people all along. But as French Defense Minister Alain Juppé noted matter-of-factly: “Every, let us say Western country … European and American, has considered Tunisia to be a politically stable country developing economically. … Doubtless, we have all underestimated the degree of exasperation of public opinion faced with a dictatorial police state. … I would like someone to name one big American or European government which, before the events in Tunisia sought the departure of Ben Ali.” They were all on his side, which is to say, opposing the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people.

The Tunisian revolt soon inspired mass demonstrations in Egypt resulting in the fall of Hosni Mubarak February 11. During that brief interval U.S. leaders heaped praise on the longtime Egyptian president. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed the Egyptian government “stable.” She added on January 25 that “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is… looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Vice President Joe Biden told an interviewer January 27, “Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with Israel.” Asked if he considered the Egyptian a dictator, Biden squirmed momentarily then said, “I think that it would be — I would not refer to him as a dictator.” Both, as well as President Obama, urged “dialogue” between the protesters and the regime — as though they were equally legitimate and morally comparable. They just didn’t get it. The youth on the streets were not interested in dialogue with a murderer.

When Mubarak did leave office, Obama had this to say: “We are witnessing history unfold. It is a moment of transformation that’s taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change. They’ve turned out in extraordinary number representing all ages and all walks of life, but its young people who have been at the forefront. A new generation, your generation who want their voices to be heard, and so going forward we want those young people and all Egyptians to know America will continue to do everything we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt.”

“We will continue to do everything we can.” As though the U.S. had been promoting “genuine democracy” in Egypt for ages! This response, like Obama’s response to the events in Tunisia, was sheer opportunism, praising Egypt’s youth—merely to pose as its natural ally in the future, even though U.S.-supplied munitions had killed and injured many of them in the previous weeks.

But what else could Obama say? He couldn’t confess, “We’ve observed with great concern the fall of our dear friend Hosni Mubarak, whom we’ve supplied with $ 2 billion every year since 1979, when his predecessor signed the Camp David accords with Israel. We and our intimate allies, the Israelis, who loved Mubarak for his harsh stance against the Palestinians and support for the maintenance of the blockade of Gaza, are deeply worried that Egypt might make a break with U.S. geopolitical policy, like Iran did after the revolution of 1979 or Turkey has done in recent years.” But that’s what he was probably thinking.

Assessing an historical tide, he needs to ride it, or try to, making the best of a troubling situation. Meanwhile his consternated and divided State Department and Defense Department have tried to figure out how to handle this wave of Arab uprisings. On the one hand, the dictators had been extremely good business partners, in terms of enlisting in the “war on terrorism,” delivering oil, keeping the Suez Canal open (even to Israeli military vessels) and in backing the (illusory) “Middle East peace process” stymied forever by the Zionist settler movement. And those remaining in power need to know (or think) that Washington’s a reliable ally. On the other hand, the U.S. was on record as pleading for greater “democracy” in the Middle East. That plea had never been sincere. But it has, from time to time, been articulated as a U.S. goal for the region, especially since 2003. By advocating, as a mere ploy and distraction, what the Arab masses now demand, Washington may have painted itself into a corner.

The Neocons and “Democracy” in the Middle East

By mid-2003, as it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the war had been based on lies, the neoconservatives who had insisted on the invasion and (through the Pentagon’s “Office of Special Plans”) produced the package of disinformation that had justified it, shifted gears. They began to argue that — whatever “intelligence flaws” might have had preceded the war and occupation — it was all worth it to “overthrow a dictator” and support the cause of “democracy” in the Middle East. This became the retrospective cause. But the neocons didn’t just make the case themselves in the Weekly Standard and National Review.

Just as they’d skillfully used Colin Powell, the first black Secretary of State, to deliver their bogus case for war to the United Nations, the neocons now dictated the script for Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor. Who better to deliver it than a black woman from Birmingham, Alabama? In August, speaking before the Association of Black Journalists, she redefined the purpose of the War on Terror and its relentless pursuit of “regime change” in what the neocons call “the Greater Middle East.” Affecting a righteous, moral tone, she declared:

…we should not let our voice waver in speaking out on the side of people who are seeking freedom. And we must never, ever indulge in the condescending voices who allege that some people in Africa or in the Middle East are just not interested in freedom, they’re culturally just not ready for freedom or they just aren’t ready for freedom’s responsibilities. We’ve heard that argument before, and we, more than any, as a people, should be ready to reject it. The view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad and in the rest of the Middle East.

This effort to conflate the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with the Civil Rights Movement reminds one of Ronald Reagan’s declaration that the Mujahadeen fighting the Soviets and their allies in Afghanistan in the ‘80s were the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”

Margaret Kimberley in the Black Commentator called this “a little gem of self-serving hypocrisy,” noting the straw man argument. (Nobody had opposed the Iraq War because they thought Iraqis weren’t interested in “freedom.”) And hadn’t Paul Bremer, U.S. procurator in occupied Iraq, stated in June that, “I’m not opposed to [self-rule], but I want to do it a way that takes care of our concerns… In a postwar situation like this, if you start holding elections, the people who are rejectionists tend to win… It’s often the best-organized who win, and the best-organized right now are the former Baathists and to some extent the Islamists.” Weren’t elections first held in occupied Iraq (skewed by the exclusion of the Baathists) held only because Shiite groups inspired by Ayatollah Sistani were demanding them and embarrassing Bremer?

But this notion that the U.S. stood for freedom and democracy became the fig-leaf for the war. Bush could boast that “two new democracies” had been created by his policies. And some puzzled by the “intelligence failures” and all the problems attending the occupation could conclude: “Well, at least we brought democracy.” The neocons dominating the administration encouraged this. It was an effort to recast their effort to transform the Middle East in the interests of Israel (and of western oil companies) as a great moral endeavor.

The Bush administration produced something called the “Greater Middle East Initiative” in 2004 to promote economic, political and cultural reform. According to the (London) Sunday Times, “when Arab nations saw a leaked copy of the plan, they were incensed and viewed it as another condescending imposition of American values without their prior consultation.” But bowing to U.S. pressure, some regimes indeed allowed partly “free” elections.

In the Lebanese local election in August 2005 the Hezbollah-Amal alliance won all 17 of the contested seats in the south by a wide margin. In what AP called “the first U.S. response to the voting,” Bush press secretary Scott McClellan simply commented, “Hezbollah, as you are well aware, is a terrorist organization.” In the Egyptian parliamentary election in 2005, parties enjoyed “unprecedented freedom” to campaign. The Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of the votes, forming the largest opposition bloc. Washington was not pleased. The neocons in particular were dismayed that such limited exercises in democracy were threatening to their main cause and passion: Israel.

When the Palestinian Authority held the first free, internationally monitored elections in January 2006, Hamas scored a “stunning victory” over the (now mainstream, U.S.-backed) Fatah. The U.S. and its allies responded by boycotting the new government and in 2007 supporting a Fatah coup attempt in Gaza that resulted instead in a strengthening of Hamas. So much for “supporting democracy.” Washington was all for people having the right to vote, so long as they vote for the right people who aren’t to hostile to Israel.

Washington’s all for freedom of speech and assembly, until they threaten close U.S. allies. The other day (April 28) the U.S. ambassador to Yemen cautioned protesters to avoid “all provocative demonstrations, marches, and speeches in the coming days.” Simmer down! he’s telling those seeking to topple Ali Saleh. They may well wonder why they should, while western governments contemplate arming the Libyan opposition.

Various reports early this month indicated that Hillary Clinton approved the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to crush pro-democracy protests in exchange for the Saudi-engineered Arab League vote in support of the Franco-British-U.S./NATO bombing of Libya. What exchange better illusrates western hypocrisy? In Bahrain, which hosts the Fifth Fleet, the protests were a headache. Clinton had in December 2010 called the monarchy a “model partner” with the U.S. “I am impressed,” she oozed, “by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on. It takes time; we know that from our own experience. There are obstacles and difficulties along the way. But America will continue working with you to promote a vigorous civil society and to ensure that democracy, human rights and civil liberties are protected by the rule of law.”

Five protesters dead as of Feb. 17 in Bahrain, over 50 missing as of March 22. The Internet shut down. But America keeps “working with” King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who has miniscule support in his Shia-majority country, while launching an assault of Libya’s Gaddafi, who has a significant social base. It doesn’t make any logical sense, and there’s no consistent moral compass applied here.

The (Selective) Assault on Libya

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to have said of the Nicaraguan dictator Samoza, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Ben Ali, Mubarak, Al-Khalifa, and Yemen’s Ali Saleh are all U.S. sons of bitches, supported until their people rise up in such strength that it becomes impossible to maintain the embrace. But Gaddafi, however cooperative with the western powers since 2003, when he abandoned his WMD programs and signed numerous agreements with western powers, isn’t “ours.” Yes, he became cozy with Blair, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi, and referred to Obama affectionately as his “son” (i.e., a son of Africa, over which he sometimes, in his weird fashion, proclaimed himself “king of kings”). He curtailed North African emigration to Europe at his partners’ request. He entertained Tony Blair, and consulted with the odious neocon Richard Perle (twice) in Tripoli. But he will always be labeled as the Lockerbie bomber, the friend of Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez, the opponent of the “two-state solution,” the weird tent-dweller.

After the fall of Bin Ali and Mubarak, and as protests swelled in Bahrain and Yemen, western leaders perceived that an historical sea change had begun. Regrettable, indeed, to see friends and allies under siege. But how to profit from this new situation? How to find opportunity in it?

While Obama dithered, the French president took swift action. Gaddafi’s a goner, he smugly assumed. And so here was Sarkozy’s opportunity to revive his sagging poll numbers and assert the grandeur of France. France, with its historical (colonial) ties to North Africa, could take the lead in assisting the Libyan opposition in deposing a tyrant, and then boast of its influence and positive image in the Arab world. But France couldn’t do it alone. It needed U.S. fire power. To get that it needed to pull together an alliance of European countries to put pressure on a hesitant Obama administration. Germany and Turkey balked, but Britain and Italy (which governed Libya as colonial power from 1912 to 1947) liked the concept.

Prime Minister Cameron and Sarkozy lobbied the White House. As a civil war erupted in February, and Gaddafi used troops against rebels, they made a big fuss about the Libyan using armed force against his own people! (As though this was something unusual. Didn’t Sarkozy as French interior minister in 2005 call out 17 riot police divisions to suppress what he called the “scum” — racaille — immigrant youth from North Africa, in the Parisian banlieue?) To prevent a bloodbath, they argued, international intervention was necessary. In fact, casualties as of early March had been light in the Libyan strife, surely no larger than those in Bahrain and Yemen. But urgent “humanitarian” action was necessary! The bombing began March 19.

Now after more than six weeks of missile attacks on behalf of the (still largely unknown) Benghazi-based opposition forces, journalists and military commentators are using words like “ineptitude” for the western-backed forces and “stalemate” for the military situation. Surprise, surprise! All Arab countries are not the same, following the same necessary trajectory. Libya is different from Tunisia or Egypt, and those thinking they can use its crisis to serve their own (imperialist) ends, and emerge at the end of the day as heros of the Arab masses, are maybe deluding themselves. Yes, there are crowds in Benghazi who’ve chanted “Sarkozy, Sarkozy!” and that may make the French president smile. But there are other crowds wanting his head.

Sarkozy has said in reference to the demonstrations in Syria: “Every ruler should understand, and especially every Arab ruler should understand that the reaction of the international community and of Europe will from this moment on each time be the same: we will be on the side of peaceful protesters who must not be repressed with violence.” Just like Obama stands with the people of Tunisia and will continue to support democratic change in Egypt! But the west has not stood with the peaceful demonstrators of Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. It has ignored the protesters in Yemen, whose dictator of 40 years has the blood of hundreds of demonstrators on his hands. Why no call for no-fly zones over those countries?

Cartoonist GB Trudeau in a recent Doonesbury strip said it all. He depicts the president conferring with advisors in the White House. “Tunisia and especially Egypt are done deals,” he says. “Mubarak was obviously on the wrong side of history. The demonstrators caused peaceful change — a clean win. Unlike in Libya, where the demonstrators took up arms. But the United States — and History — do not look favorably on tyrants who murder their own people… Unless they do it in Bahrain and Yemen and kill them in acceptably low numbers. History gives such regimes a pass. As it does in Iraq. Although not in Iran, whose protestors we support, unlike those in Pakistan, who obviously don’t understand history.” Someone interrupts to report rioting in Paris, and someone else asks “What side of History are…?” while Sarkozy begs for help.

The strip illustrates the conundrum: how do you maintain your pretense of supporting democracy, while siding as a rule with oppressors? You can appeal to an hypostasized “History,” and describe your friends are always conforming to “the side of History,” heading ever onwards. And you can depict your foes as doomed warriors for some sort of evil past. But “History” as Marx once said (and it bears endless repeating) “does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this.” There is no inevitability, surely not towards Obama or Sarkozy’s notion of a better world, as opposed to Mubarak’s or Gaddafi’s or Assad’s. There is just the penchant of people to rebel against oppression, and the tendency of rulers to cluelessly respond.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.