Let Freedom Ring (But Not Too Loud)

By Abdullah Al-Arian29.12.2011Global Policy

As the Republican primaries approach, American presidential contenders have employed rhetoric that casts the Arab spring as promoting instability and as a threat to US interests. For a nation that prides itself on the defense of freedom, this is a startling move.

From the perspective of many American politicians, the Arab populations of countries from Morocco to Yemen could not have picked a worse time to revolt. On the eve of a national election cycle set to begin with Republican Party primaries in just a few weeks, the political reality taking shape in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia has been obscured by American candidates seeking to score cheap political points by feeding into popular fears and misconceptions about a region that has been an unfortunate focal point of United States policy for the last decade. The national conversation about the Arab Spring has been characterized by the tension between two conflicting impulses that have defined American policy toward the region since World War II. The first is the desire to promote the universal ideals of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. But after 1945, colonial rule was replaced by American hegemony in pursuit of the second impulse: the desire to protect strategic and economic interests, often by providing considerable support for authoritarian regimes. In the quest to protect secure access to oil, underwrite Israeli regional military superiority and expansionism, and project American economic and military might, U.S. leaders have preferred dictators to popularly elected governments that are far more likely to oppose such policies.Consequently, successive U.S. administrations have provided considerable military, economic, and diplomatic support to nearly every Arab authoritarian ruler from Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi to Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The effects of that policy were felt on September 11, 2001 The resulting “War on Terror” has been one of the most contentious policy initiatives in recent American history. However, the Arab revolts of the past year are set to pose a far more permanent challenge to the long-term position of the U.S. in the region. Consequently, even as Obama has expressed verbal support for the aspirations of the Arab populations, his administration has quietly proceeded with business as usual, sending emissaries to help conserve the existing political order, while continuing to provide the weaponry used by Arab militaries against peaceful civilian protestors. For their part, the rightwing presidential candidates have not even feigned support for the promotion of democratic ideals in the Middle East. Instead, they have presented the Arab Spring as a threat to American interests and a sign of the Obama administration’s failed foreign policy. With Islamically oriented political parties poised to sweep elections in Tunisia as well as Egypt, the public discourse in the U.S. has been dominated by an alarmist trend, warning that democratic elections are simply a path to Islamic totalitarianism. Congress has proposed that future economic aid to Egypt should be contingent on whether the Secretary of State deems that the elected government is controlled by “terrorists”. In effect, the popular will of tens of millions of Egyptians is meaningless as long as Hillary Clinton holds the deciding vote that is critical to the survival of a weak state that was formed on the basis of its patronage of Western powers. What is needed now is not a debate among American politicians about whether to confer their country’s blessing upon the unmistakable cry for freedom by millions of long-suffering people. Rather, that call should be embraced as a reality and Western governments should demonstrate respect for the democratic choices of Arab societies.

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