US Volt-face on Democracy

Gulf News, May 23, 2007

The US government appears to have changed its course away from where it stood in November 2003. Then, in a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, President George W. Bush promised an American “forward strategy” to promote democracy in the greater Middle East.

Now, the Iraq war seems to have sapped the Bush administration’s energies. Democracy has advanced very little in most Muslim countries over the last three years.

And some US officials are choosing to shamefully redefine the authoritarian status quo as democracy and freedom.

The world is not perfect. Most of us understand the difficulties and limitations faced by the US as the world’s sole superpower. Notwithstanding perceptions to the contrary, the US does not control the world.

American leaders and officials must deal with constant divergence between their ideals and the strategic compulsions of the moment.

Even then, US officials do not need to lie publicly in an effort to curry favour with authoritarian rulers useful for current American strategic objectives.

Consider recent comments by the American ambassador in Egypt, Francis Ricciardone, and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher.

Ricciardone recently told Egyptian television, “Here in Egypt as in the US, there is freedom of speech.” Boucher told Voice of America, “I think the Pakistani government is moving forward; they’re moving toward elections.”

Ricciardone’s comments were not a slip of the tongue and the transcript of his television interview was posted on the website of the American embassy in Cairo.

When asked by CNN International recently to comment on the torture and continued detention of Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, an embassy spokesman refused to be drawn into criticism of President Hosni Mubarak’s government. Instead, the spokesman insisted that the US believed Egypt was “making prog-ress” towards democracy.

The ambassador’s proc-lamation and his spokes-man’s description of a regime that arrests and tortures dissidents as reflecting progress is far from reality.

Even the State Department’s annual human rights report, prepared by its Democracy and Human Rights Bureau and released in March 2007, pointed out that the Egyptian government’s “respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas”.

Boucher’s characterisation of Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf is even worse. To say that the “Pakistani government is moving forward” so soon after the government-orchestrated massacre of opposition supporters in Karachi is nothing short of an insult to Pakistanis marching in the streets of the country’s cities for rule of law and restoration of democracy.

Boucher tried to cover his tracks by saying, “I recognise that tensions do exist” in Pakistan but his bottom line was an unequivocal endorsement of a military regime that is clearly undoing whatever little good it might have done in the past seven years.


Important question

An important question is why does Boucher feel compelled to praise a client regime at a time when its actions merit criticism, whether public or private?

If the purpose is to reassure Musharraf that the US is still with him even if the people of Pakistan are not, then that purpose is better served during private meetings.

Why must Boucher risk his credibility, and that of the US government, by saying on radio or television what is already being communicated to Musharraf with large sums of money?

The Bush administration has already provided and budgeted $5.174 billion in aid for Musharraf’s regime for the period 2001-2008. Some of this amount has admittedly gone towards projects benefiting the people. But an additional $80 to $100 million is given each month as Coalition Support Funds and the total under that head until August 2006 was over $4 billion.

That amount goes almost exclusively towards Pakistan’s security services. There are no publicly available estimates for covert transfers of funds to Pakistan’s army and intelligence services but it can safely said that total US aid for the Musharraf regime over the last five years is $10 to $15 billion.

If after such largesse, Musharraf’s regime cannot maintain security and create even the illusion of stability in Pakistan, Ambassador Boucher’s false praise for the teetering Pakistani government is unlikely to strengthen it.

During the cold war, the words of US officials served to encourage Soviet bloc dissidents suffering imprisonment and torture.

Now, US diplomats don’t even have words of comfort to offer prisoners of conscience such as Egypt’s Ayman Nour or supporters of the democratic opposition in Karachi who were killed by pro-government gunmen.

Can’t Ricciardone and Boucher at least keep quiet if strategic compulsions of the moment prevent them from speaking out in favour of tortured advocates of democracy?