Dallas Morning News, April 12, 2004.
In Monday’s meeting at the presidential ranch in Crawford, George Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are scheduled to discuss terrorism, freedom and the Israel/Palestine conflict — under the rubric of Bush’s “Greater Middle East Initiative.”
The key question is: What new initiative is there?
In a November 2003 speech, Bush acknowledged that U.S. officials have been on the wrong side of the region’s struggle for democracy: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.”
Bush is right. Through Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has chosen dictators over democratically elected leaders (such as in Iran, where we installed the brutal Shah), backed anti-democratic monarchies to enhance our influence over the flow of oil and oil profits (such as Saudi Arabia), and supported the human-rights violations of allies (such as Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian territory). The goal was never U.S. citizens’ safety, but U.S. power.
But is Bush now planning to pursue policies in the Middle East that commit the United States to a “forward strategy of freedom”? The record suggests not.
Take one of our new friends in that part of the world, Uzbekistan. The State Department’s 2003 report called it “an authoritarian state with limited civil rights” that has a “very poor” human-rights record replete with “numerous serious abuses.” But in December 2003 Bush waived rules requiring a suspension of military aid if there weren’t improvements in human rights. But after 9/11 Uzbek President Islam Karimov gave Washington access to strategic bases, and U.S. forces still operate from Khanabad Air Base to support operations in Afghanistan. So much for democracy and freedom.
What about Iraq? The most recent evidence of the United States’ respect for freedom came when the Coalition Provisional Authority shut down Al Hawza, the newspaper associated with Moktada al-Sadr, allegedly for inciting violence even though the paper had not called for violence. A more plausible analysis is that the United States wants to weaken al-Sadr’s organization and push him out of the political process well before elections.
Beyond this single incident, the hypocrisy in U.S. policy is clear. Any future Iraqi government that is to be deemed “legitimate” will provide the United States with permanent military bases. The “Law of Administration,” or interim constitution, signed in March by Iraqis under U.S. “guidance,” guarantees that U.S. military forces will stay at least through December 2005, and Iraqi forces will remain under U.S. command — hardly a recipe for a free and open political process. Before that, the CPA had privatized much of the Iraqi economy, dictating the very shape of Iraqi society.
As Rahul Mahajan, reporting from Iraq (see www.empirenotes.org), put it last week, “There is no quicker way to get an Iraqi to laugh than to talk about how the United States is bringing freedom or democracy to the country.” Most Iraqis are glad Saddam Hussein is gone, but they have few illusions about U.S. intentions.
But perhaps the most obvious expression of contempt for democracy is the Untied States’ rejection of international law and the international consensus for ending Israel’s occupation. Until Washington supports the right of Palestinians to determine their own future, out from under Israel’s harsh military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, no one will take seriously rhetoric about democracy. As Israel’s primary backer — financially, militarily, and diplomatically — the United States refuses to exercise its considerable leverage over Israeli policy.
Bush is right to say many people in the Middle East and the Islamic world want democracy. The question is whether U.S. policymakers will allow it.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a founding member of the Nowar Collective, www.nowarcollective.com, and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist He is the author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights Books). He can be reached at [email protected]