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US Plays the Democracy Card

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    Playing the Democracy Card By Dilip Hiro 03/17/05 TomDispatch.com - - How America furthers its national interests in the Middle East. The United States
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 3, 2005
      Playing the Democracy Card

      By Dilip Hiro

      03/17/05 "TomDispatch.com" - - How America furthers its national
      interests in the Middle East. The United States flaunts the banner
      of democracy in the Middle East only when that advances its
      economic, military, or strategic interests. The history of the past
      six decades shows that whenever there has been conflict between
      furthering democracy in the region and advancing American national
      interests, U.S. administrations have invariably opted for the latter
      course. Furthermore, when free and fair elections in the Middle East
      have produced results that run contrary to Washington's strategic
      interests, it has either ignored them or tried to block the
      recurrence of such events.

      Washington's active involvement in the region began in 1933 when
      Standard Oil Company of California bid ten times more than the
      British-dominated Iraq Petroleum Company for exclusive petroleum
      exploration rights in Saudi Arabia's eastern Hasa province.

      As a leading constituent of Allied forces in World War II, the U.S.
      got its break in Iran after the occupation of that country by the
      British and the Soviets in August 1941. Eight months later President
      Franklin Roosevelt ruled that Iran was eligible for lend-lease aid.
      In August 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull said, "It is to our
      interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf
      opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi

      The emergence of Israel in 1948 added a new factor. Following its
      immediate recognition of Israel, Washington devised a military-
      diplomatic strategy in the region which rested on the triad of Saudi
      Arabia, Iran, and the new state of Israel, with the overall aim of
      keeping Soviet influence out of the Middle East. While each member
      of the troika was tied closely to the U.S., and links between Iran
      and Israel became progressively tighter, Saudi Arabia and Israel,
      though staunchly anti-Communist, remained poles apart. Nonetheless,
      the overall arrangement remained in place until the Islamic
      revolution in Iran in 1979.

      Besides pursuing the common aim of countering Soviet advances in the
      region overtly and covertly, each member of this troika had a
      special function. Being contiguous with the Soviet Union, Iran under
      the Shah helped the Pentagon by providing it with military bases. By
      inflicting a lightning defeat on Egypt and Syria - then aligned with
      Moscow - in June 1967, Israel proved its military value to the U.S.
      This strengthened Washington's resolve to get Israel accepted by its
      Arab neighbors, a policy it had adopted in 1948 and implemented soon
      after, even though it meant subverting democracy in Syria.

      In March 1949, following Brig.-General Husni Zaim's promise to make
      peace with Israel, the CIA helped him mount a military coup against
      a democratically elected government in Syria. After Zaim had signed
      a truce with Israel on July 20, he tried to negotiate a peace treaty
      with it through American officials. A month later, however, he was
      ousted by a group of military officers and executed. The military
      rule that Washington triggered lasted five years albeit under
      different generals.

      As the possessor of the largest reserves of petroleum in the region,
      Saudi Arabia helped the U.S. and its Western allies by keeping oil
      prices low. Furthermore, as a powerful and autocratic monarchy Saudi
      Arabia played a leading role in helping to suppress democratic
      movements in the small, neighboring, oil-rich Gulf States.

      American clout increased when Britain - the dominant foreign power
      in the region for a century and a half - withdrew from the Gulf in
      1971. The British withdrawal allowed the U.S. to expand its regional
      role as the four freshly independent Gulf States - Bahrain, Qatar,
      the United Arab Emirates, and Oman - struggled to adjust to the new
      reality. But instead of pressuring these sheikhdoms to institute
      democracy, Washington either opted for secret defense agreements
      with them or let the House of Saud implement an anti-democratic
      agenda in the region unhindered.

      The Saudi Anti-Democratic Mission

      In 1962, during a severe crisis in the House of Saud, Crown Prince
      Faisal promised political reform, especially the promulgation of a
      written constitution specifying a Consultative Council, with two-
      thirds of its members elected. But when he ascended the throne two
      years later he reneged on his promise.

      Washington said nothing. It also remained silent when Riyadh helped
      suppress democracy in neighboring countries.

      After its independence from Britain in 1961, Kuwait acquired a
      constitution which specified a National Assembly elected on a
      franchise limited to males belonging to families domiciled in Kuwait
      since 1921 - in other words, about a fifth of adult citizens.
      Despite its limited nature, the Assembly evolved into a popular
      forum for expressing the aspirations and grievances of several
      important constituencies. Stung by criticism of official policies by
      its representatives, and encouraged by the Saudi monarch, Kuwaiti
      Emir Sabah ibn Salim al Sabah suspended the Assembly in 1976,
      accusing it of "malicious behavior," and then dissolved it. Its
      revival in 1981 lasted a mere five years.

      At no point did Washington criticize the ruler's undemocratic

      Since 1992, when limited parliamentary elections were restored,
      voters have returned more Islamist MPs than pro-Western liberals.
      Emir Jabar ibn Ahmad al Sabah's efforts to extend the vote to women
      have failed, while he has made no move to extend the vote to the
      remaining four-fifths of adult male citizens - nor has America
      pressured him to do so. He and the Americans fear, of course, that a
      universal adult male franchise would bolster the strength of the
      Islamist bloc in the Assembly.

      Bahrain: Limited Democracy Derailed

      In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia's anti-democratic mission melded with
      America's military needs. Bahrain became independent in August 1971.
      Its constitution, drafted by a constituent assembly (half nominated,
      half elected on a limited franchise), specified a National Assembly
      of 42 deputies, 30 of whom were to be elected on a restricted
      franchise. The first Assembly convened in December 1972 while Saudi
      Arabia watched warily.

      As in Kuwait, however, the elected representatives criticized the
      government, angering the ruler, Shaikh Isa al Khalifa. This -
      combined with pressure from Riyadh - led the Emir to dissolve the
      Assembly in August 1975 and suspend the constitution.

      Once again, Washington said nothing about the quashing of limited
      democracy in Bahrain. Why? In 1971, after the Pentagon leased naval
      facilities previously used by the British, Bahrain became the
      headquarters of the American Middle East Force. In 1977, the ruler
      extended the US-Bahraini agreement; and in 1995 Bahrain became the
      headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

      Jordan: An Election Law Altered by Decree

      Jordan provides another telling example of how American
      administrations have dealt with democracy in the Middle East. In an
      uncommonly free and fair election in November 1989, the Islamic
      Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood,
      won 32 seats in the 80-member House of Representatives. It joined
      the government and ran five ministries.

      During the 1990 Kuwait crisis which culminated in the 1991 Gulf War,
      the Jordanian king took into account popular opinion, both inside
      and outside parliament, which was opposed to joining the US-led
      alliance against Iraq, and advocated a negotiated solution to the
      crisis. By so doing, he acted as a constitutional monarch.

      Instead of praising this welcome democratic development, the
      administration of George Herbert Walker Bush pilloried Hussein as "a
      dwarf king." Unable to stand the pressure, King Hussein crawled back
      into Washington's fold after the 1991 Gulf War. To thwart the
      possibility of the IAF emerging as the leading party in the next
      election, he altered the election law by decree. In quietly
      applauding his action, the elder Bush's administration showed its
      cynical disregard for democracy.

      Egypt: Supporting the Autocrat

      While King Hussein manipulated the Jordanian political system with
      some sophistication to achieve the result he wanted, President Anwar
      Sadat of Egypt blatantly used the government machinery and state-run
      media to produce a pre-ordained electoral result to endorse his
      signing of the U.S.-brokered bilateral peace treaty with Israel in
      1978-79 after he had broken ranks with the Arab League.

      The depth and durability of popular antipathy towards peace with
      Israel, while it continues to occupy the Palestinian Territories, is
      highlighted by the fact that a quarter-century after the peace
      treaty, relations between the two neighbors remain cold. While
      remaining firmly under American tutelage, President Husni Mabarak
      has continued to spurn offers to visit Tel Aviv.

      As in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest political party in
      the Middle East and long outlawed in Egypt, offers a credible
      challenge to the semi-dictatorship of Mubarak (in power since 1981).
      His regime has continued to be the second largest recipient of the
      U.S. aid after Israel under both Democratic and Republican

      Several months ago, Mubarak mused that democracy in Egypt would mean
      Muslim Brotherhood rule over the country. The key question now is:
      Will Mubarak - who recently agreed to hold the Presidential election
      scheduled for September through "direct, secret balloting" instead
      of simply rubber-stamping his sole candidacy in a stage-managed
      referendum - let the Brotherhood challenge him?

      The answer will come in the wording with which Article 76 of the
      constitution will be amended and passed by a Parliament dominated by
      Mubarak's National Democratic Party. At present, it specifies a
      single presidential candidate, endorsed by at least two-thirds of
      parliamentary deputies, to be offered to the voters for approval.

      Yemen: Rebuffing Democracy

      Another victim of the way American administrations have placed their
      narrow interests above any program to democratize the Middle East
      was Yemen. Ever since the creation of Republic of Yemen, following
      the union of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1991, the country has
      had a multiparty political system. Indeed, since North Yemen had
      been governed by the General People's Congress and South Yemen by
      the Yemen Socialist Party, a peaceful unification could only come
      about through the creation of a multi-party system.

      In April 1993, the government organized the first general election
      on the Arabian Peninsula based on universal suffrage. It was for a
      301-member House of Representatives and the Presidency. This
      historic event went unnoticed in the United States where the Clinton
      administration continued to rebuff the Yemeni government because of
      its insistence on an Arab solution to the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis and
      its negative vote on United Nations Security Council Resolution 678
      authorizing military action against Iraq.

      Encouraged by the Yemeni election, six Saudi human rights activists -
      professors, judges, and senior civil servants - established the
      Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) in Saudi
      Arabia. It demanded political reform in the kingdom, including
      elections based on universal suffrage. Government persecution
      followed, including job dismissals and arrests. Prof. Muhammad al
      Masaari, the head of the CDLR, managed to flee first to Yemen, and
      then to Britain.

      Yet Washington did not protest.

      Now George W. Bush loudly applauds the local elections held recently
      in the Saudi Kingdom. His administration ignores the fact that only
      half of the seats were even open for contest, and so distrustful
      were Saudi citizens of their government's electoral promise that
      only a quarter of eligible voters even bothered registered. Women
      were, of course, barred from voting.

      By contrast, Bush endlessly laments the absence of freedom for the
      people of Iran, which his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
      recently described as "a totalitarian state." These statements run
      counter to the facts. Since the 1979 revolution in that country, the
      Islamic regime has held seven parliamentary, eight presidential, and
      two local elections - as well as four Assembly of Experts polls -
      all of them multi-candidate and based on universal suffrage with a
      voting age of 15.

      What explains this blatant myopia? While practicing an Islamic
      version of democracy, Iran is actively opposing the economic,
      military, and strategic ambitions of America in the region.

      Actually, the historic pattern of American administrations in the
      Middle East - downgrading democracy at the expense of narrow
      national interests - is in line with what the United States has been
      practicing in Central and South America for a much longer period - a
      phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed in the United States

      Dilip Hiro is the author of "The Essential Middle East: A
      Comprehensive Guide" (Caroll & Graf) and "Secrets and Lies:
      Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After" (Nation Books).

      Copyright: TomDispatch.com



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