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Relying On Allied Tyranny

The consistency of American foreign policy is a thing to marvel at. Sure, there have been various ideological and strategic consistencies from Truman to Obama, but even during potentially game-changing crises imperial policy remains steadfast. Thus the official line quietly insists: “Pay no mind to the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the Arab world standing up against their U.S.-allied autocrats. Support for tyranny must persist.”

The New York Times [1]:

Even as the Obama administration has ratcheted up the pressure on Egypt, it has reaffirmed its support for other Arab allies facing popular unrest.

The White House released a statement saying that Mr. Obama called President Abdullah Saleh of Yemen on Wednesday to welcome Mr. Saleh’s recent “reform measures” — the Yemeni president promised not to run again in 2013.

And on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called King Abdullah II of Jordan to say that the United States looked forward to working with his new cabinet — recently announced — and to underline the importance of the relationship between Jordan and the United States.

Don’t be fooled by the diplomatic gestures. When Obama and his officials call the Egyptian government to discuss “a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman,” he is not exactly plowing towards an assured path to reform. Suleiman has a history of being an effective element of Egypt’s client state status. As Jane Mayer has reported [2],  “Suleiman has headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service” as “the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions” which occurred “often under brutal circumstances.”

And when Egypt renditioned Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, whose tortured confessions lent credence to the Bush administration’s case for the invasion of Iraq, Suleiman was in charge of his capture and interrogation, and surely had a hand in “lock[ing] him in a tiny cage for eighty hours. Then they took him out, knocked him over, and punched him for fifteen minutes.”

If democratic reforms were truly Obama’s immediate aim he could have done better than Suleiman. Such contempt for freedom and democracy is to be expected though, given the post-war bipartisan consensus on a foreign policy that relies on allied tyranny, and that boldly contends that Americans have more a right to such privileges than other human beings coincidentally existing outside the borders of the shining city on a hill.


The playbook for the rest of the relevant tyrannies under U.S. influence isn’t very much different.

To call up Mr. Saleh of Yemen to congratulate him on his “reform measures” demands an ignorance of recent events there. Since the end of the last Bush term and since Obama’s began, Yemen has gained an elevated status in our Middle East policy and Washington has increased its reliance on Yemen’s cooperation (read: obedience). Naturally – if you know your history – this manifests itself in hundreds of millions of dollars. Chris Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said a while back [3] that “there’s been a ‘massive uptick’ in the amount of military and security assistance going to Yemen” to the tune of “$60-$70 million” a year, plus direct counterinsurgency training. The primary effect of this on the domestic situation in Yemen has been to significantly roll back human rights in the name of security [4]. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. “investment” in that country will evaporate with Saleh’s supposed 2013 departure.

King Abdullah of Jordan was next on the list for praise from the Secretary of State Clinton. In response to protests, Abdullah swiftly appointed a new prime minister and cabinet. As Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations tells us [5],

The peaceful change of government in Jordan does not mean that all is well. One of the core demands of the demonstrators–elections to choose a new prime minister–was not met. Moreover, the new prime minister–Marouf al-Bakhit–may not be the right man for the hour. He is an ex-general whose previous term as prime minister from 2005 to 2007 was not marked by promised reforms, but by perceived inaction. Upon announcement of Bakhit’s appointment, opposition leaders criticized the choice of a non-reformist.

With some of the heaviest financial and political support flowing in from Washington, Jordan rivals most regimes in the region for closest U.S. ally (excluding Egypt). Abdullah, like the other autocrats, goes through processes of promising reform, and then doing nothing of the sort [6]. The U.S. will praise him for such promises, and then quietly wink and nudge when he breaks them. Again, what the U.S. wants is stability (read: repression), not true reform.

Much has also been made of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recent interview in the Wall Street Journal [7] where he conceded the fact that Syrians, along with many others in the region, want reform and that he will have to comply. But Assad doesn’t fall outside the aforementioned status quo either. As Danin again has written [8],

Assad is no doubt watching very closely as events unfold in Egypt and likely lamenting Mubarak’s hesitance to move quickly and in full force against the domestic unrest. That was the lesson the younger Assad learned from his father, who brutally mowed down the city of Hama with tanks, killing tens of thousands of its inhabitants, when Islamic radicals rose up to challenge the regime in 1982. Assad the elder taught his son to rule with an iron fist and with a tight security apparatus, and to brook no dissent….anything that looks like a popular challenge to the Assad rule will surely be met with a swift and vicious response.

A few stubborn facts are dictating Obama’s policy in the region: (1) a cornerstone of American foreign policy is to only support democracy if it conforms to strategic and economic interests and (2) countries in this region do not fit this criteria; our blind faith support for Israel, our indispensable interest in Near East oil, and an ideological bent on the part of America’s political class to fear and denigrate an entire people are primarily what disqualify the region of being worthy of America’s good graces.

There is actual potential for these various uprisings to affect some real change in the region. But the people themselves will usher it in. It certainly won’t come from America’s overarching influence. Rather, in spite of it.