The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen reveal some uncomfortable truths about this country’s foreign policy. The Obama administration — caught between not wanting to abandon Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a cruel dictator who has been a loyal ally, and wanting to guide or support a popular uprising that will define the future — is caught in a replay of a scene we see over and over again.
America unfurls the flag of democracy and human rights rhetorically, but we ally ourselves with “stability” — that is, all too often, with dictatorship: Cuba’s Batista, Nicaragua’s Somoza, Chile’s Pinochet, South Africa’s apartheid regime, Egypt’s Mubarak, Iran’s shah, Indonesia’s Suharto, the Philippines’ Marcos and many more. When the people finally revolt, we flounder, usually concerned more about shoring up the existing regime than supporting democracy.
Our foreign policy is dominated by our military and intelligence agencies — the national security state. As a result, our ties with dictators tend to involve deep complicity with the most unsavory parts of these regimes — the military and the intelligence services that trample (and often repress) dissent. We are not neutral or distant supporters of political freedom. We are viewed — most often correctly — as central supporters for the systems of repression that prop up dictators. We train their police, arm their militaries, base our troops in their countries. Not surprisingly, anti-Americanism is widespread — though not in Egypt’s uprising — in the democratic opposition to the dictators that we support. Indeed, Americans, and American society, are widely admired, while our government is just as widely despised.
This distortion of our policy leaves us clueless when democratic movements arise. We scramble to identify leaders, facing understandable suspicion of our motives. Despite our constant celebration of civil society, we systematically underinvest in the civilian sides of international politics. In Egypt, the United States lacked meaningful contacts with many of the groups on the street. Our calls now for an orderly transition are widely viewed as an effort to buy time in the hope that the revolt will die out.
That is why efforts to defend independent political organizing, to support independent trade unions and to defend human rights activists cannot be decorations, discarded when it is time to get down to business. They must be seen as central to our dealings with any dictatorship, even strategic allies. The saving graces of American influence — to the extent there are any — are the nongovernmental human rights advocates, the champions of free speech and press, and the supporters of independent trade union organizing, which help defend space for political expression and put some check, however limited, on the severity of repression. The whole world is watching now, but for years, while the U.S. government succored the Mubarak regime, human rights advocates and union organizers were virtually the only ones calling the government to account.