Democracy should guide U.S. alliances

July 14, 2002|By John R. Deni

HEIDELBERG, Germany -- President Bush finally waded into the deep end of Middle East politics through his demand for fundamental changes in how the Palestinians govern themselves.

Unfortunately, in making such demands, Mr. Bush ceded initiative and control to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians, thereby placing America's Middle East policy on its heels in a reactive posture. Mr. Bush's plan and, indeed, Middle East peace now seem dependent on a recalcitrant Palestinian Authority with little incentive to engage in meaningful change.

Nonetheless, there is still at least one major area of U.S. policy toward the Middle East in which Mr. Bush can seize the initiative. He should direct a complete reappraisal of America's approach toward allies and enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere that centers on ending support for dictatorial regimes and instead more consistently engages and rewards states that promote democracy and the rule of law.

Most Americans think democracy and the rule of law are the motherhood and apple pie of U.S. foreign policy. And it's certainly true that the United States promotes these interests overseas. But, as happens in the international arena, these interests sometimes take a back seat to more realpolitik concerns such as our dependence on oil, our need for military access or our desire to contain an unruly regional power.

During the Cold War, the United States frequently shoved aside its concerns for democracy, the rule of law and open markets in countries such as Iran, the Philippines, Spain, Greece and Turkey and much of Central and South America, all in the name of containing communism. Usually, favoring corrupt, repressive, anticommunist regimes resulted in little negative impact to our own security within U.S. borders.

Today, however, our support for such regimes carries with it grave consequences for homeland security. The reasoning is direct and simple: Across the globe, but especially in the Middle East, those kinds of regimes engender the conditions that spawn terrorists. They do this because they maintain power by placating the relatively small, educated, powerful ruling class -- specifically through offerings of coveted jobs, senior military postings, preferential treatment and bribes -- at the expense of the vast majority of citizens.

Broad-based official corruption inexorably leads to social ills that afflict countries on a large scale, including a lack of access to education, a skewed economic playing field, media censorship, injustice and political repression. These conditions of exploitation, poverty and powerlessness give way to immense frustration that reflects genuine social or political grievances. And those grievances are increasingly expressed through terrorism.

For example, one of our major allies in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by a regime that some would say is best known for nepotism and endemic corruption. That same regime is the beneficiary of significant U.S. largesse in the form of political support and military assistance.

In return, we get the right to maintain a large military presence there. Although the Saudi government supports us, the nature of that government has led to a disgruntled, frustrated populace, one that blames the United States for propping up a corrupt regime, that despises our presence there and that has shown a willingness to engage in terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, across the Persian Gulf, the people of Iran -- who are represented by a popularly elected, multiparty legislature and a popularly elected president -- remain tarred as part of the "axis of evil."

Admittedly, Iran still has a theocratic ruler atop its government, and elements of its government retain ties to terrorist organizations in Lebanon and the West Bank. Nevertheless, it has made far greater progress toward democracy and the rule of law than Saudi Arabia. As such, Iranian society is increasingly characterized by a growing, secular middle class, more equitable access to educational opportunities and an absence of the kind of virile, fanatic anti-Americanism found elsewhere in the region.

The point here is not that Mr. Bush should simply ignore ties between Iran and terrorist groups or that the United States should hastily give up important access rights to military facilities.

Rather, as our support for corrupt, repressive regimes increasingly leads to dire consequences for our own security, a reappraisal of who our real enemies are and who our true friends might be seems in order.

John R. Deni is a doctoral candidate in international affairs at George Washington University.

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