Libya and selective US intervention
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
“We stand for universal values, including the rights of the … people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the freedom to access information.”
–President Barack Obama, during the Egyptian mass uprising against a detested dictator.
“The United States is … to construct an architecture of values that spans the globe and includes every man, woman and child. An architecture that can not only counter repression and resist pressure on human rights, but also extend those fundamental freedoms to places where they have been too long denied.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a foreign policy speech in September.
That is the theory — U.S. foreign policy in defense of universal values. In practice, the United States has often been unable or unwilling to live up to the values it preaches. Like other big powers, it has placed its self-interest first, which meant dividing the world into acceptable and unacceptable authoritarians. Soaring rhetoric since the beginning of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world notwithstanding, the gap between theory and practice is in full view again.
In an act of selective intervention, the U.S., France, and Britain launched air and missile strikes on Libya on March 19 to prevent the government of Muammar Gaddafi from using “illegitimate force” against Libyans demanding his ouster and clamoring for the same freedoms the Obama administration, after dithering and zig-zagging, eventually cheered in Egypt.
While Gaddafi’s brutal crackdown on opponents provoked a war, equally ruthless repressions (though on a smaller scale) of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain and Yemen prompted rhetorical American slaps on the wrists of the respective rulers, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years, and a royal family which declared martial law in Bahrain this week.
So why Libya and not Yemen and Bahrain? Here is where lofty talk of universal values collides with self-interest and here is where policies the United States pursued for more than half a century live on. George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, put it succinctly in a 2005 speech in Cairo: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy … here in the Middle East.”
It still does, where Yemen and Bahrain are concerned. As a newly leaked cable (dating back to 2005) from the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital put it: “Saleh has provided Yemen with relative stability … but has done little to strengthen government institutions or modernize the country. As a result, any succession scenario is fraught with uncertainty.”
OUR SON OF A BITCH
Uncertainty in a tribal country that is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the stuff of nightmares for the U.S. government, which has been counting on Saleh’s cooperation in the fight against AQAP. So, there has been no public American push for him to step down, not even after the killing of 52 pro-democracy demonstrators in a Sana’a square on March 18. Washington shrugged off a call by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, for a suspension of military assistance to Yemen.
Which brings to mind a remark attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, more than 60 years ago, about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch but he is our son of a bitch.” Who says there is no consistency in U.S. foreign policy?
In the case of Bahrain, too, U.S. national interests trump universal values. The tiny island, connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, there to guard shipping lanes that carry around 40 percent of the world’s tanker-borne oil. Saudi Arabia sent more than 1,000 troops into Bahrain to help the royal family in a ruthless crackdown on dissent.
With martial law imposed, the freedoms of which Obama spoke so approvingly when the Egyptians ousted Hosni Mubarak have been suspended in Bahrain. Hillary Clinton’s talk of an “architecture” to extend fundamental freedoms “to places where they have long been denied” sounds quaint in this context.
But critics of Washington’s dealings with the world should take note that hypocrisy and double standards are not an American monopoly. Take France and Britain, for example, the United States’ main partners in the attack on the Libyan government. Neither country has a record of unselfish promotion of human rights and freedom, not recently and even less in their colonial pasts. Is hypocrisy the inevitable byproduct of power politics?
What makes the United States particularly vulnerable to charges of double standards is its proclivity to going around the world preaching values it cannot live up to — and to portray itself as more moral and righteous than other nations.
In his State of the Union speech in January, Obama followed a long tradition of American leaders in describing his country in superlative terms. America, he said was “not just a place on the map but the light to the world.”
A fine phrase. It clearly does not mean that universal values are applied universally.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)