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America and the Dictators

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Every society views itself through a lens of bias.  Indeed it is hard to imagine a day going by in the United States without someone saying that America "is the best country on earth" or "no one has more freedom than we do."  We also tend to look at our role in the world through a similar lens: "America is a force for good in the world"; "we bring freedom to the oppressed"; "we fight for freedom." These are all classic American slogans.

But nationalism tends to distort reality.  This is particularly true of American policy in the Middle East.  America does not support "freedom" in the Middle East; it supports dictators.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of American military aid and our strongest ally in North Africa.  The country is ruled by Hosni Mubarak, a dictator who routinely beats and arrests peaceful protestors; rigs elections (he has been reelected over and over again since 1981, sometimes miraculously winning 99% of the votes); bans the gathering of more than five people without a permit; and engages in torture and extrajudicial killing.  Egypt supports our policies in Israel, provides us with valuable airspace, and permits America open access to the Suez Canal.  Thus, in 2006, David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified before the House Committee on International Relations that the "strategic partnership with Egypt is in many ways a cornerstone of our foreign policy in the Middle East."

Saudi Arabia, another strong American ally, is ruled by a royal family that does not even bother to hold elections. Saudis are not permitted to criticize the government, political parties are banned, and the public practice of religions other than Islam is prohibited.  Saudi Arabia is also one of the few nations that can say that it has executed someone for practicing "sorcery" (in 2002 an Egyptian man, Mustafa Ibrahim, was executed for trying to separate a married couple "through sorcery"). Saudi Arabia's women's rights record also ranks amongst the lowest in the world.  As one Saudi woman wrote in the Washington Post on August 16, 2009: "Everyone knows that women are denied rights in Saudi Arabia. And you may think that our fate is the same one that women in some other developing countries face, only a little worse. In truth, we endure a status that most Americans can scarcely imagine." Women are not allowed to drive a car in the country, and must obtain their husband's permission prior to travelling or undergoing elective surgery.  Nevertheless, besides the Israelis, the Saudis are America's strongest ally in the region, constantly relying on America for political legitimacy, billions of dollars in arms purchases/gifts, and American development of their impressive infrastructure.  In exchange for these benefits, the Saudis provide the United States with oil at relatively cheap prices, and tend to toe the line on the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  When the Cold War kicked off in 1945, the State Department proclaimed that the oil resources of Saudi Arabia are a "stupendous source of strategic power and of the greatest material prizes in world history." Our relationship with Saudi Arabia has reflected our desire to control this great prize.

Other examples of repressive rulers that America has endorsed include General Musharaff of Pakistan, Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, and Saddam Hussein.  We also support the monarchs of the small Gulf States, including Kuwait.  This trend in American policy is not even controversial.  President Bush openly acknowledged our support for Middle Eastern dictators in a speech in 2003, when he apologized for "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East".

American support for oppression is terrible policy.  It renders us hypocrites in the eyes of the people of the Middle East, and undermines efforts to support democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Indeed, a central reason why many questioned American motives in Iraq was because at the same time we were invading Iraq to "spread democracy," we were actively supporting the Saudi monarchy next door.

Moreover, American support for repressive rulers inspires anti-Americanism.  We should consider what we would think if we lived in Saudi Arabia and knew that our repressive rulers were backed by the United States.  We would be angry, just like the Muslim world is angered by these policies. President Obama should commit America to opposition to all leaders that refuse to respect the basic rights of their people-rights that America claims to protect domestically and abroad.

But even though we can obtain political and security benefits by supporting freedom, we should not acquire these benefits before deciding to support human rights.  America should oppose dictators everywhere because repression is wrong as a matter of social justice. One would think that America, with its claim to a proud history of freedom, would readily recognize this.

In the end, we can continue to believe that America's role in the world is to bring freedom to others.  But let's at least realize that the Egyptians languishing in prison, the Saudis who have never had a chance to vote in an election, and the Pakistanis who were oppressed under Musharaff, think that the Land of the Free is playing them for fools.