As the nation witnesses the rebellion against the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt unfold, it is useful to reflect on the fact that the U.S. has almost always been on the wrong side of reform and revolution in the world. Though Presidents, public officials and Americans in general are quick to boast about this nation as the bright beacon of democracy, liberty and hope for the world, America´s history is filled with examples of cozy relationships with autocrats and ruthless despots. President Calvin Coolidge once famously proclaimed “the business of government is business.” And, all too often, in the name of protecting U.S. “vital interests” this dictum has trumped the lofty ideals of promoting democracy and liberty around the globe.
America´s “friends” reads like a who´s who in the hall of shame of dictators and unsavory autocrats: Samoza, Trujillo, Batista, Duvalier, Reza Pahlavi (Shah of Iran), Botha, Marcos, Mobutu, Pinochet, Cedras. Now, with legions of Egyptians pouring into the streets clamoring for Democracy, the U.S. is caught attempting to rationalize why our government has been in bed with Mubarak, whom former Vice-President Dick Cheney has hailed as “good friend and reliable ally.”
Cheney is correct. Despite presiding over a pseudo democracy where most opposition parties are banned, human rights violations are rampant and unemployment and poverty are staggering, Mubarak has been a reliable ally. Early in his tenure he was seen as a reliable alternative to the rise of another Gamal Abdel Nasser, who might ally with the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc in championing the cause of developing nations around the world. Indeed, what Martin Luther King called a “morbid fear of Communism,” is the principal reason the U.S. embraced so many despots during the Cold War. All that was necessary to receive a steady flow of foreign aid, much of which was military assistance, during the Cold War was to be part of the pro-western, anti-communist club. Second, the U.S. was eager to have a safe regime guard and provide preferential access to the Suez Canal to ensure that oil, the life blood of the American economy, could flow unimpeded. Finally, with Anwar Sadat´s dramatic visit to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel (an act which infuriated the Arab-Muslim “streets” and led to his assassination), the U.S. had a dependable partner in the Mid-East peace process and “bulwark” against Arab extremism. Post 9/11, Mubarak has been considered a crucial ally in the war against terrorism. In fact, there is solid evidence that during the Bush administration, suspected terrorists were secretly sent to Egypt where they were tortured to gain intelligence. The U.S. proclaims that torture is contrary to our “values;” therefore, it was necessary to render suspects to our trusted friends in Egypt.
It has been a costly friendship. By some estimates the U.S. shells out more than $2 billion annually to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which is aid to the military. This is more than the rest of the African continent. U.S aid has been dispensed to prop up a repressive and corrupt regime where according to a recent article in the New York Times, the armed forces “operate as a parallel economy, `a kind of Military, Inc.,´ involved in production of electronics, household appliances, clothing and food.” While the military is profiting within an oppressive society, millions of Egyptians eke out an existence on $2.00 a day, and there are more unemployed college graduates than in any nation in the world. In the meantime, Mubarak has hardly taken a vow of poverty. His family fortune is estimated at $40-60 billion! With that amount of loot you would think that he would retire from office willingly. But, like most despots, he is a “proud man” who is intoxicated by power.
The contradictions and hypocrisy in U.S. policy in the Middle East are mindboggling. America can be friends with an authoritarian regime in Egypt but wage war against Iraq to kindle democracy in the region. The Palestinians are encouraged to foster democratic institutions, but when Hamas wins a decisive majority in free and fair elections in Gaza, the U.S. refuses to respect the outcome, choosing instead to shun Hamas as a “terrorist” organization. The U.S. can tolerate the Royal Families of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, hardly showcases of democracy, but recoil at the prospect of Hezbollah leading the government in Lebanon. Beyond the obscene amount of taxpayer dollars that are going to support relationships and alliances that fly in the face of the nation´s professed values, the U.S. is paying an even greater toll in terms of fueling anti-American sentiments in the region and the world. It is quite apparent to the protesters in Egypt and the Arab/Muslim world that the U.S. has been subsidizing Mubarak and his repressive-regime for decades. There is also legitimate outrage that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has not been resolved because the U.S. is not viewed as a neutral facilitator but a self-professed ally and defender of Israel first and foremost. And, it does not take a rocket scientist to discern that the U.S. addiction to oil dictates that it set-aside its “values” and ally with whoever has the goods in the interest of protecting America´s vital interests.
The contradictions and hypocrisy, however, reverberate far beyond the Middle East. It is the height of hypocrisy that the U.S. could have a 30-year alliance with the Mubarak regime and maintain an embargo against Cuba because it lacks “democratic institutions.” While one might concede that Cuba is more authoritarian than democratic, at least it is a regime which has consistently attempted to use the power of the state to promote social and economic policies to benefit the people. China arguably fits in the same category, but the U.S. has no problem not only engaging China but permitting the People´s Republic to hold a huge amount of U.S. debt. Venezuela and Bolivia are also on America´s list of maligned nations primarily because their populist leaders are dedicated to minimizing the penetration and exploitation of their resources by U.S. corporate interests. According to the “Coolidge dictum,” Mubarak is a good guy but Chavez and Morales are enemies.
The real tragedy is that the “sound and fury” of anti-Americanism precipitated by a history of contradictions and hypocrisy in U.S. international relations will proceed with the American public virtually oblivious to what is transpiring in their name. I dare say that most Americans had no clue about the despotic nature of the Mubarak regime. We are pre-occupied with debates over who is a real American, the deficit, size of government, efforts to further entrench Wall Street as the guardian of the economy, and a war on terrorism to protect the “home of the brave and land of the free” from the Jihadists. Despite the ignorance factor of the electorate, however, the U.S. cannot escape the consequences of its behavior on the world stage. America´s history of contradictions and hypocrisy will continue to haunt the U.S. until “we the people” compel our government to align its vital interests with the professed ideals of this nation and forge relationships, friendships and alliances accordingly.