US President Barack Obama in a recent speech and in a presidential memorandum has vowed to launch a counterattack to check threats to democracy worldwide. The US president noted that oppressive governments were sharing ‘worst practices’ to weaken civil society.
His remarks last week won much praise and stirred hopes of activists campaigning to end dictatorships, so much so that the Washington Post wrote an op-ed article that carried the byline ‘the Editorial Board’.
“We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come,” Obama said in an address aimed at democratic activists around the world. He appeared to be infusing new life into the flagging spirit of democracy activists and human rights promoters when he declared that the United State would “stand with the courageous citizens and brave civil society groups who are working for equality and opportunity and justice and human dignity all over the world.”
Sadly though, the words are not part of the US foreign policy. Neither has Obama’s rhetoric reached the oppressed people the world over to give them hopes that their suffering will soon end. Words, however promising they are or how powerful a person who uttered them, will sound hollow if they are not turned into action. So will Obama’s words if he does not turn them into action or pursue them with selfless passion to establish democracy, uphold justice, ensure freedom and penalise dictators.
None would disagree that there is no altruism in politics. According to political realism, enhancing power is the main objective of a politician, a political party or a State. It is naïve not to assume that the US does not pursue a policy aimed at increasing its power. Even during the era of isolationism before World War 1 and later between the two great wars, the US aggressively followed a policy to increase its economic and military power.
A politician’s speech may appear as altruistic – like the words of President Obama during his democracy-promotion speech – but his aim may be to enhance his power. Similarly, states sometimes take a morally correct stand on pressing global issues such as climate change, the food crisis and disarmament, but their objective is to boost their image or to cover their shame when they have been accused of doing the wrong or morally incorrect thing – like invading a country or committing war crimes.
Going by the past record of the United States, it is difficult to believe that Obama’s democracy promotion stems from a selfless intention to help people who are oppressed by jackboot dictators and fascist tyrants.
In the 1940s, George Kennan, the US State Department diplomat in charge of preparing the staff, gave the following advice to the trainees before they took up postings as ambassadors:
“We have about 50 per cent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 per cent of its population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…”
Amid concerns that the US share of the world’s wealth has been declining with the rise of China as an economic power, we do not know what kind of advice the present day US diplomats are given before they take up postings.
A pro-democracy protestor delivers a speech in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on October 1, 2014. Hong Kong has been plunged into the worst political crisis since its 1997 handover as pro-democracy activists take over the streets following China’s refusal to grant citizens full universal suffrage. AFP
On the face of it, it may seem that the United States is working to end oppression. The US brags about getting rid of the oppressive regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. But the question is: Did the US effect the regime change for the love of the people in these countries or for the selfish motive of making economic gains?
It is now an open secret that the US invaded Iraq for its oil. Talk of bringing democracy to Iraq was an attempt by the then US President George W. Bush to give a veneer of legitimacy to the immoral act of invading a country and occupying it. Even whatever democracy the US brought about in Iraq was tampered with to suit the US agenda.
When Iraq’s experiment with democracy produced results that the US did not like, President Bush used strong-arm tactics to pervert the outcome of the elections. This happened when Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari won Iraq’s parliamentary elections in 2006 and was nominated for the post of prime minister for the second time. But the Bush regime opposed him because he was seen to be close to Iran and resisting US dictates. Bush perverting democracy was not unusual. But it is shocking when Obama does the same. The Obama administration played a big role in preventing Nouri al-Maliki from becoming prime minister for another term, though the Iraqi politician’s Dawa Party won the most number of seats at the parliamentary elections.
Even in Libya, where the US militarily intervened to bring about a regime change, US attempts to manipulate democracy and install a pro-West regime have plunged that once peaceful country into a bloody hellhole.
Nowhere is the gap between what is said and what is done is wider than in the US policy towards post-Arab Spring Egypt.
In May 2011, when the Arab Spring was blooming, Obama proclaimed “a new chapter in American diplomacy…. after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be…. It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”
But when the people’s power revolution installed democracy and produced a government that the US and its staunch allies Israel and Saudi Arabia did not like, the Obama administration intensified measures to bring down the Muslim Brotherhood government which was moving away from the US’ sphere of influence.
None who attended the Clinton Global Initiative meeting where Mr. Obama gave his democracy-promoting speech got up and asked him why the US accorded recognition to the military government of Abdel Fateh al-Sisis in Egypt instead of penalizing it -- as the US law demands – for the coup that overthrew the Brotherhood government.
They should also ask him why the US refused to recognise the Hamas government although the Palestinian resistance group won the 2006 assembly elections. They can also ask Obama whether spending millions of dollars to buy opposition politicians and orchestrate a coup to overthrow the democratically elected President in Ukraine was the US way of democracy promotion.
Or take Syria. President Bashar al-Assad offered democratic reforms such as multi-party elections to end the rebellion that had the support of the US and its Gulf allies. But instead of encouraging Assad to implement the reforms, the US and its allies sought to topple his government by arming, training and financing the rebels, most of whom were allied with al-Qaeda and the dreaded Islamic State.
In Pakistan, the US has partnered with the military regimes in the past to achieve its geo-strategic goals, thus giving legitimacy to the illegal power grabs by Pakistan’s military. In yet another example that showed that democracy toppling is the US policy, the CIA staged a coup in Iran in 1952 and ousted the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq.
Democracy, despite its defects and deficiencies, is the best form of government, provided it has proper checks and balances. But democracy today even in the United States is under threat. President Obama should first turn the searchlight inwards and seek to strengthen democracy within before promoting democracy outside.
If President Obama is committed to promoting democracy, as he claims to be, then we would not have seen a witch-hunt against the Wikileaks chief, Julian Assange, whose crime was to uphold an essential pillar of democracy -- the people’s right to know. Edward Snowden, who exposed the US administration’s undemocratic practice of extensive internet and phone surveillance, would not have to live like a fugitive in an alien country if democracy had been practised in spirit and letter in his country – the United States. Moreover, if the US was the democracy it claimed it to be, then the Americans would not have seen or heard of draconian legislation such as the Patriot Act or waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay gulag prisons, military trials, racial profiling, hundreds of lies to justify invasions and the killing innocent civilians in drone attacks.
In short, democracy as practiced even in the world’s oldest democracy – the United States – is a sham even though the US Constitution is hailed as the world’s best man-made document that seeks to uphold fundamental rights and freedom.
Even democracy promotion outside the US is a selfish exercise aimed at setting up of vassal states or puppet regimes. The US foreign policy, instead of promoting democracy, has driven nascent democracies towards dictatorship, and moderates towards extremism. Take for instance Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia veered towards democracy. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin realised that there were moves to undermine the independence of Russia and to set up a pro-West puppet government through fifth columns, he was forced to take harsh measures that erode the people’s freedom.
The same is true with regard to China. Beijing tolerates no dissent not because it hates democracy but because if fears the pro-democracy campaigners’ pro-West agenda – which is harmful to China’s national interest. This is why China opposes the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Twenty-five years ago it brutally crushed a similar protest at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In what appears to be a warning directed at the US, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a joint news conference on Wednesday in Washington with his counterpart John Kerry, said that Hong Kong affairs were China’s internal affairs and all countries should respect China’s sovereignty.
He said non-intervention in other countries’ affairs was a basic principle governing international relations.
The bottom line is that the more a nation sees a foreign hand involved in its internal affairs on the pretext of democracy promotion, the more repressive it will become.
US policy has also driven Islamists away from democracy. In democratic elections in Algeria, Libya, occupied Palestine, Egypt and Turkey (before Recep Tayyib Erdogan formed a government), the Islamists won democratic elections handsomely, only to be denied their right to form a government by West-engineered military coups or strong-arm tactics. As a result, the Islamists have lost faith in democracy and are being attracted to extremist ideologies. Washington should bear the blame for creating the conditions for the existence of Islamic extremism.
President Obama must restructure his democracy promotion campaign and base it on moral principles rather than political agendas.