End of the pro-democracy pretense

Fears of Arab democracy are finally ending the charade that the U.S. supports it; plus: more Iran fear-mongering

Published January 2, 2012 12:34PM (EST)

Media coverage of the Arab Spring somehow depicted the U.S. as sympathetic to and supportive of the democratic protesters notwithstanding the nation's decades-long financial and military support for most of the targeted despots. That's because a central staple of American domestic propaganda about its foreign policy is that the nation is "pro-democracy" -- that's the banner under which Americans wars are typically prettified -- even though "democracy" in this regard really means "a government which serves American interests regardless of how their power is acquired," while "despot" means "a government which defies American orders even if they're democratically elected."

It's always preferable when pretenses of this sort are dropped -- the ugly truth is better than pretty lies -- and the events in the Arab world have forced the explicit relinquishment of this pro-democracy conceit. That's because one of the prime aims of America's support for Arab dictators has been to ensure that the actual views and beliefs of those nations' populations remain suppressed, because those views are often so antithetical to the perceived national interests of the U.S. government. The last thing the U.S. government has wanted (or wants now) is actual democracy in the Arab world, in large part because democracy will enable the populations' beliefs -- driven by high levels of anti-American sentiment and opposition to Israeli actions -- to be empowered rather than ignored.

So acute is this contradiction -- between professed support for Arab democracy and the fear of what it will produce -- that America's Foreign Policy Community is now dropping the pro-freedom charade and talking openly (albeit euphemistically) about the need to oppose Arab democracy. Here is Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a very typical member of the National Security priesthood, writing on Friday in The New York Times about Egyptian elections (via As'ad AbuKhali):

Many in Israel and America, and even some in Egypt, fear that the elections will produce an Islamist-led government that will tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, turn hostile to the United States, openly support Hamas and transform Egypt into a theocracy that oppresses women, Christians and secular Muslims. They see little prospect for more liberal voices to prevail, and view military dictatorship as a preferable outcome.

American interests, however, call for a different outcome, one that finds a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians. We do not want any one side to vanquish or silence the other. And with lopsided early election results, it is especially important that the outcome not drive away Egypt’s educated liberal elite, whose economic connections and know-how will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.

Our instinct is to search for the clarity we saw in last winter’s televised celebrations. However, what Egyptians, and Americans, need is something murkier — not a victory, but an accommodation.

I love this passage both for its candor and for what it lamely attempts to obfuscate. Why should "American interests" determine the type of government Egypt has? That it should is simply embedded as an implicit, unstated assumption in Alterman's advocacy. That's because the right of the U.S. to dictate how other nations are governed is one of the central, unchallenged precepts of the American Foreign Policy Community's dogma and it thus needs no defense or even explicit acknowledgment. It simply is. It's an inherent imperial right.

But Alterman here is expressly admitting the reality that most media accounts ignore: that the U.S. does not, in fact, want democracy in Egypt. It fears it. That's because public opinion polls show overwhelming opposition among the Egyptian populace to the policies which the U.S. (for better or worse) wants to foist on that country: animus toward Iran, preservation of the peace agreement with Israel, ongoing indifference to the plight of the Palestinians, and subservience to U.S. goals. Indeed, according to the 2011 Pew finding, "nearly eight-in-ten Egyptians have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S." That tracks opinion in the Arab world generally, where the two nations perceived as the biggest threat are -- by far -- the U.S. and Israel (not Iran), and the three most admired foreign leaders are Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, followed by Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinijad.

But even more significant is Egyptian public opinion specifically on the issue of greatest concern for American (and Israeli) foreign policy officials: a nuclear Iran. A 2010 Brookings/University of Maryland/Zogby poll found vast, overwhelming Egyptian support for the view that Iran has the right to have a nuclear weapon, and for the view that a nuclear Iran would be a net positive for the region. That, too, tracks general public opinion in the Arab world, which supports Iran's right to have nuclear weapons. In light of these facts, does anyone believe that the U.S. government and its pool of experts that exist to justify what it does -- the Foreign Policy Community -- have even a slight interest in actual democracy in Egypt specifically or the Arab world generally?

Of course not. As Noam Chomsky put it recently: "The U.S. and its Western allies are sure to do whatever they can to prevent authentic democracy in the Arab world" because "if public opinion were to influence policy, the U.S. not only would not control the region, but would be expelled from it." That's why Alterman is urging what he delicately calls "a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians" -- meaning: ensuring the ability of the Egyptian military to prevent the country's democratically elected leaders ("Egypt's new politicians") from implementing the will of the citizenry. The fear of (and desire to stop) Arab democracy has been openly expressed for some time by many American neocons and even Benjamin Netanyahu; that it is now spilling over into America's mainstream Foreign Policy experts is telling indeed.

In calling for a force to constrain democratic rule, Alterman doesn't mean here the kind of Constitutional protections that exist in the U.S. to safeguard (in theory) minorities from the tyranny of majority rule, at least not primarily. Those are legitimate issues balancing democracy and minority rights -- for the Egyptians to resolve. What Alterman advocates is a bulwark against the ability of the Egyptian people to free themselves of military rule, choose their own government, and decide their own fate. He wants democracy to exist in Egypt to extend only to the point where Egyptians "choose" to do what the U.S. wants them to do and to end at the point where they want to do something different (in that regard, his vision for "freedom" in Egypt is not unlike what many "freedoms" have come to mean in the U.S.: you can exercise them provided they do not contradict the interests of the U.S. Government). Thus, Alterman announces, in Egypt we must avoid the "clarity" of democracy in favor of something "murkier."

Even if you're indifferent to the moral questions involved in actively trying to impede democracy in Egypt -- suppose you're a hard-core adherent of Henry Kissinger and realpolitik and want to the U.S. to act only to advance its interests without regard to moral and ethical questions -- the foolishness of this approach is manifest. It's what the U.S. has been doing, so disastrously, in that part of the world for decades: feigning support for democracy while working against it.

The Obama administration paid pretty lip service to the Egyptian revolution but then worked to install Mubarak's chief torturer Omar Suleiman in power, who, for obvious reasons, is viewed with great disfavor among Egyptians. That propaganda ruse fooled one of its chief targets (the American electorate) but failed miserably among Egyptians, who knew exactly what the U.S. was up to. As a result, Egyptians now view the U.S. even more unfavorably than they did during the Bush years, while "more Egyptians — 64 percent — said they had low or no confidence in President Obama in 2011 than they did last year, up five percentage points."

Nothing will ensure ongoing anti-American sentiment in Egypt (and the Muslim world generally) than following the approach prescribed by Alterman of working actively to impede democracy. Egyptians yearn for democracy and will scorn those who impede it. That they continue so bravely to protest in the streets even with Mubarak gone is dispositive proof of that fact, but for those who want empirical data: in the 2011 Pew poll, 71% of Egyptians say "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government," while only 17"% say that "in some circumstances, a nondemocratic government can be preferable." In other words, the vast majority of Egyptians do not want Alterman's "murkier" framework where military rule "balances" democracy; they want democracy. In this extremely informative analysis of the current situation in Egypt, Issandr El Amrani notes: "The military’s claim to be guardian of the revolution has been weakening since soon after Mubarak was toppled." While the U.S. Government can trick Americans into believing that the U.S. is on the side of Freedom and Democracy even as it works against it, it cannot fool the citizens in those nations it seeks to suppress.

Alterman claims that he wants to impede Egyptian democracy in the name of "what Egyptians, and Americans, need" -- right: because Jon Alterman and his fellow denizens in America's National Security priesthood want only what's best for The Egyptian People, and that means preventing them from living autonomously. But one need not even bother with that pretense to see the huge deficiency in this approach. Having the U.S. impede democracy in Egypt no more fulfills what "Americans need" than it does what "Egyptians need." It's a self-perpetuating, self-inflicted dilemma: the more the U.S. impedes democracy in other nations, the more it is disliked in those nations, which in turn means it needs even more to impede democracy in those nations, etc. ad infinitum. This is exactly the behavior (along with blind support for the actions of the Israeli government) that has led to such vast anti-American sentiment (which in turn is what fuels Terrorism and support for it).

It's just extraordinary how our nation's Foreign Policy Experts never learn the lesson. Either that, or they view anti-American sentiment in that part of the world as an agenda-enabling positive. It's hard to know which is worse.

* * * * *

Speaking of propaganda and the meaning of "democracy": The Washington Post today has the latest installment of increasingly pure fear-mongering media accounts about Iran (this from the NYT last week -- "Clock Ticking for West to Act on Iranian Nuclear Program" -- was a remarkable escalation). Today's Post article mindlessly echoes neocon fantasies about a growing Persian menace in Latin America, frighteningly close to America's borders!  Without an ounce of skepticism or balance, it quotes a GOP Congresswoman complaining that Iran has found "willing partners in the region’s anti-American despots," and then ominously warns:

Former U.S. intelligence officials say the presence of Quds Force officers and other military personnel in diplomatic missions enhances Iran’s ability to carry out covert activities, sometimes in conjunction with members of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group that operates extensive networks in Latin America and maintains ties with drug cartels. U.S. officials say the Quds Force was behind the alleged plot to hire Mexican drug gangs to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington.

“For Iran to be so active in Venezuela and for the Quds Force to be there can only suggest Iran is serious about asymmetrical force projection into our neck of the woods. If Israel bombs Iran, we may well see retaliatory strikes aimed at U.S. interests coming from these Quds Force guys in South America,” said Art Keller, a former case officer with the CIA’s counterproliferation division.

Leaving aside the fact that this Quds-Force/Mexican-drug-cartel/Saudi-Ambassador assassination plot was so facially absurd as to be laughable, and further leaving aside that these neocon fantasies of Hezbollah running wild in Latin America have been clearly debunked, and further leaving aside that the Post article does little more than identify commercial transactions between Iran and these nations, consider who are the region's "anti-American despots" whom Iran is threateningly befriending.

The Post explains that Iran has now "opened six new missions there — in Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia — and has expanded embassies in Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela"; Iran's President, the article informs us, is now embarking on a trip to Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua. Other than Cuba, all of those nations are governed by democratically elected leaders. But many of them periodically defy American dictates and act against American interests; they are thus magically transformed into "despots." By contrast, try to find any high-level American official using such a term to describe, say, America's close friends ruling Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. That is what is meant by "democracy" and "freedom" and "despots" when used in establishment American foreign policy discussions.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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