In his landmark speech at Cairo University in June 2009, US President Barack Obama announced that “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”.
It was an apparent departure from the aggressive foreign policy of his predecessor, George W Bush, who was an advocate of revolutionary change in the Middle East, having stated in a 2005 speech that the United States would no longer “tolerate oppression for the sake of stability”.
Nevertheless, American commitment to its much-touted democratic values has always been a grey area – and the question has once again come to the fore in the wake of the ongoing Egyptian uprising.
The embattled current Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, reigned for over 30 years – supported and funded by the United States.
Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel – receiving up to $2 billion every year in economic and military aid; the tear-gas canisters thrown at protestors on the streets of Cairo have ‘Made in USA’ written on them.
The US continued to support the recently-ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali, despite recently leaked cables revealing that they were fully aware of the debauchery and corruption that marked his 23 year old regime.
The leaked cables mentioned a lavish 12 course dinner for the American ambassador at the beachfront home of Ben Ali’s son-in-law where, reportedly, there were “ancient artefacts, Roman columns, frescoes and a lion’s head from which water pours into the pool.”
The dessert – ice cream and frozen yoghurt – was specially flown in from Saint Tropez.
The United States also turned a blind eye when the winners of the Algerian elections were arrested, and a State of Emergency was imposed in Algeria in the early 1990s that would last nearly two decades.
In the past, the US has embraced dictatorships in Chile, Guatemala, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq – and continues to support despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and several tiny Gulf sheikhdoms – all apparently in the best interests of its national security.
America’s myopic vision of its ‘national interests’, however, has often come back to haunt them.
The Islamic revolution of 1979 that deposed the US-backed Shah of Iran, installed in its place a powerful, hostile theocracy that has refused to budge, and continues to ruthlessly crackdown on pro-democratic activists on the streets of Tehran.
The ‘Death to America’ chant that originated during this revolution continues to be the catchphrase of militant Islamist groups decades later.
It cost the US a disastrous war that continues to bleed their economy to oust former ally Saddam Hussein and today, CIA-trained Osama Bin Laden is the most wanted man in America.
Nevertheless, the US continues to pursue policies that risk their long term security in favour of short term political goals.
The US reactions to the uprisings in Iran and Egypt are a study in contrast; in 2009, they openly supported the pro-democracy ‘Green movement’ in Iran, since it was perceived to be in their immediate self-interests.
It was, however, only when the true magnitude of the Egyptian uprising became obvious that the less than enthusiastic US response changed to more vocal support.
Even more contentious is the manner in which the United States has responded to the democratic verdict of Arab people, on the rare occasions where they have exercised their democratic rights.
For instance, President George W Bush, who had emphatically promoted democracy as a part of his ‘freedom agenda’, refused to deal with Hamas despite their landslide victory in the 2006 elections in the West Bank that were unanimously declared by international observers as being free and fair.
Similarly, Hezbollah’s electoral victory in Lebanon was met with hostility.
Separate polls conducted by Zogby International and BBC reveal that even as the US pours billions in aid to Middle Eastern dictatorships, it has earned very little sympathy in return.
In a 2002 survey, 76 percent of Egyptians expressed disapproval of USA – two years later the number had jumped to 98 percent. In Saudi Arabia, another close US ally, the disapproval ratings have increased from 87 percent in 2002 to 94 percent in 2004.
Interestingly, the Pew Forum notes that there is general public admiration for American freedoms and prosperity though there was strong resentment at US foreign policy that deprived them of political freedoms.
Given this, the US should resist attempts to keep its political opponents such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt out of the democratic process – as it has only led to disillusionment with the democratic system in the past.
The paranoia of Islamist regimes shouldn’t prevent the US from accepting the rights of people to choose their own leaders, and shape their own destiny.
Indeed, in a democracy, even Islamist parties have to work hard to retain their mandate, as evidenced by Hezbollah’s defeat in the 2009 elections, and the victory of a US backed group.
The Arab uprisings have proven that the US must reconsider its policy of funding strong armed despots to suppress Islamist parties – as even the mightiest dictators cannot survive the wrath of an oppressed public.
Instead, America must address the root causes of the widely prevalent anti-American sentiment, not the least of which is their unflinching support of Israel despite their perceived military excesses, which are deeply unpopular in the Arab world.
The Israeli attack of an aid flotilla, the operation in Gaza, the Lebanon war, etc have all attracted condemnation from International Human Rights groups, but the American government missed the opportunity to get behind Arab outrage in these cases.
It continues to elude US policy makers that if only they would adopt a more even-handed approach towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, the entire Arab world would embrace America.
The present bitterness towards American policies is being exploited by Islamist parties in countries ranging from Iran to Pakistan to the Maldives to hide their own short comings and grab power.
America remains a very important and essential player that continues to be the embodiment of freedom and achievement. Whether it is their vibrant democracy, strong constitutional rights, scientific and technological achievements, or free enterprise and innovation, America provides a strong cultural leadership and acts as a guiding light for countries around the world.
Indeed, the recent Wikileaks cables revealed that popular American television sitcoms had a far greater impact in curbing extremism and promoting a cultural understanding of Western values in Saudi Arabia, than the millions of dollars spent on US propaganda in the region.
Perhaps it would be in America’s – and the world’s – best interests to answer the Arabs’ cry for dignity and freedom, and take a principled stance to help them usher in an era of political freedom and economic opportunity.
As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech in 2011, America is the first nation founded on an idea – an idea that everyone deserves the chance to shape one’s own destiny.
If the US wants to win the battle for hearts and minds of the Arabs, it must promote that ideal sincerely for all people, and acknowledge that freedom of speech and democratic representation are not just American values, but universal human rights.
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