Adrian Hamilton: The American discovery of democracy

Wary of military intervention, Washington now wants regime change through popular uprising

Published: 23 June 2005
The Independent, UK

Depending on your predilections, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's speech in Cairo this week was either the most radical and important statement of Bush's foreign policy ambitions in his second term or it was an outrageous piece of hypocrisy masking a reversion to all that is worst in his administration.

The tempered response would be to say it was a bit of both. The more direct reaction would be to say that it was neither. There was nothing new in Dr Rice's embrace of democracy as the moving spirit of America's foreign policy today. That was outlined by President Bush in a series of speeches before his re-election, when he redefined US foreign policy away from a primary concern with stability of regimes towards supporting the ideals of free expression, equality of women, and elections.

But the fact that the US Secretary of State could come out quite so bluntly in saying that "for 60 years the US pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East - and achieved neither" does mark a further tightening in the rhetoric of democratisation in the region. The fact that she accompanied this by quite open criticism of America's key allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for suppressing demonstrations in the one case and locking up dissidents in the other is also no accident.

Democracy is now the name of the American game in the Middle East and Washington means to pursue it, even if it entails ruffling the feathers of its allies. And the world ought to applaud that, if for no other reasons than it gives those inside and outside the region a yardstick by which they can measure
its actions.

But the world also has a right to ask just what the US means by this redefinition of its objectives and what is its purpose. In the first place, democracy in this case clearly applies to the Middle East. It is not an objective being pursued outside, as we saw from the hesitant and compromised response to the massacre in Uzbekistan. Free elections are something that the US believes should happen in every Arab country, but are not apparently to be mentioned when it comes to talking about China or Pakistan.

This isn't just a question of hypocrisy. It reflects a fundamental difference in the way the US defines its interests in different regions. Democracy in the Middle East is seen - as neo-con thinkers argue - primarily as a means to an end, that end being our old friend, stability. Liberal democracies are, in the view of the White House, less likely to confront Israel and encourage terrorist acts against America.

And, in the view of the Vice-President Dick Cheney, they are also less likely to constrain oil production and hold America over a barrel on prices and supplies. A democratic Middle East is also a peaceable one.

This in turn helps explain the glaring differences in US attitudes towards free elections and popular participation in the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice was at it again in her speech. Egypt and Saudi Arabia were chided for not doing enough but they, like Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, were praised (somewhat patronisingly it has to be said) for the steps they had taken. They were on the right lines.

Iran and Syria, however, were dismissed as being tyrannical regimes impervious to popular pressure. Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, all of whom have the most flawed forms of democracy at best, were not mentioned at all, and Jordan only glancingly so.

So, what does Washington mean by democracy here? In one sense, as Dr Rice adumbrated at some length, it means freedom - free speech, equality of the sexes, education for all, and the vote. All the things, in other, words that most people in the Middle East, and elsewhere, yearn for and are beginning to agitate for.

But democracy is also a means of achieving power, and altering it. And this in the end is what Dr Rice, reflecting the White House, seems most concerned with. She doesn't want to change power in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, or for that matter Jordan or most of the Gulf states. She wants the existing regimes to continue but to achieve greater legitimacy, internationally as well as domestically, through elections.

In Iran and Syria, on the other hand, Washington wants regimes to change and, now that experience of Iraq has made it more wary of direct military intervention, it sees popular democratic uprising as the means to do it. Hence the quite different language which President Bush and his Secretary of State and Defence Secretary use when referring to different countries.

Hence, also, Bush's decision to acclaim Egypt's decidedly limited moves towards multi-party presidential elections as a giant step in the right direction but to dismiss the current Iranian elections for president as irrelevant.

It may be that the results of the first round of Iranian voting have been manipulated, in which case we should be encouraging the modernisers to make their voices heard for the run off. It may equally be that there is an unexpected strength to the forces of conservatism, in which case we should listen and not dismiss it just because it doesn't fit what we want.

The Middle East needs the engagement and support of the outside world, from the EU and America, on the items that lead to greater freedom, from open debate to elections. What it does not need is the outside world pushing courses with an unspoken agenda in mind. It's had too much of that already.