From Tunisia to Sudan to the Ivory Coast, the bankruptcy of U.S. democracy-promotion programs.
In a peculiar way, the fall of Zine Ben Ali, sole master of Tunisia for a quarter century, exposes the bankruptcy of a centerpiece of America’s foreign policy, namely, our declared support for democracy.
Two inspiring victories for liberty this month, in Sudan and Tunisia, were achieved with no help from America’s multi-million dollar democracy industry; one might say despite it. In other countries, ranging from Algeria to Zimbabwe, passing by the Ivory Coast and Africa’s longest-lasting unresolved colonial conflict, Western Sahara, the contribution of our “democracists” to freedom’s cause has been zilch.
The regime of Omar el Bashir’s Congress Party, based on Arab Muslim tribes from the Nile valley to the east and north of Khartoum, has been scolded by successive U.S. administrations for its violent repression of the southern Sudanese, who predominantly belong to sub-Saharan tribes that were evangelized by British missionaries a century ago. Bashir himself is under indictment by the International Tribunal for crimes committed against Muslim groups in Darfur, in Sudan’s northwest.
In Tunisia, the regime of Zine Ben Ali, has for 23 years received American support as a partner for progress and more recently against terrorism.
It would be quite respectable to say — it was first said by John Adams — that there is very little we can do in these remote and little-understood countries, each of which has its own discrete historical complexity. To proclaim our commitment to freedom, however, spend a lot of money saying so, and then watch like morons as freedom movements go right by us, is at the least embarrassing; at the worst, it fuels anti-Americanism and gives openings to our enemies, who as it happens are usually also enemies of freedom.
When Zine ben Ali pushed aside the founder of modern independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, in a 1987 palace coup, the cover story was that he was an efficient technocrat who would maintain the course on which the aging and ailing Bourguiba had set the country. Intent on proving Islam and modernity were not incompatible, Bourguiba promoted equal rights for women and encouraged them to enter the work force, tolerated political competition and press freedom, up to a point.
Ben Ali, citing an Islamist threat which he crushed, laid down a new social compact in the early '90s: Tunisians can do whatever they want in pursuit of commercial and entrepreneurial opportunities, but in the political realm, they can shut up and get used to it. It was called “le Changement” and it was the classical Carthaginian despotism in late 20th century dress. Purely formal opposition candidates stood in pro-forma elections, until Ben Ali removed all pretense and had the constitution changed to allow him to stay in office forever. No press, no labor unions, no independent civic life, which among other things meant that the liberal advances made during the Bourguiba years, notably where women are concerned, were turned back. The regime added protection to its other rackets, centralizing ordinary Mediterranean baksheesh in the Ben Ali clan.
There is no case, at least not a strong case, for Zine Ben Ali being “our guy, ” in the way Congo big man Mobutu Sese Soko was in his day or the way Rwanda strong man Paul Kagame was said to be by President Clinton. I don’t think you could even say that Ben Ali was France’s guy, even though French foreign policy, through socialist and conservative governments, coddled him much more overtly that we ever did. Practically the day before Ben Ali and his family fled Tunis for Jennah (a resort town in Saudi Arabia, which is full of “our guys” if the way we deal with them is any indication), President Sarkozy’s foreign minister, Michele Aliot-Marie, was saying in the French National Assembly that perhaps Ben Ali should “sub-contract” crowd control to France. It was an astonishing thing to hear from a foreign minister and, no doubt, there will be contradictory accounts of what she meant.
While neither we nor the French can be held responsible for every Somoza on the planet, it is a fact that neither we nor they did anything to keep Ben Ali from staying in power as long as he did. And for all the money USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), their French and German and Scandinavian equivalents, and what-all, spend on “democracy promotion,” “rule of law,” “human rights” and the rest, you would be hard put to find a Tunisian Martin Luther King who got any help from the American government. At the very most, we may have discreetly mentioned to Ben Ali that killing this one or keeping that one in jail without trial (or even charges) is not a terribly good idea, and the quiet word may even have saved a life.
THE REASON THIS MATTERS is that it shows how bankrupt our democracy-promotion programs are. You can argue that the U.S. should not be in the democracy business, as an official foreign policy goal. You can argue, for example, that the best way we promote freedom is to preserve our own — something we might give some attention to, as it happens. Irving Kristol once quipped — quite profoundly, as usual — that the only successful American foreign policy is immigration.
Ever since Carter and Reagan put human rights and democracy, respectively, high on their foreign policy agendas, we have spent a lot of money and expended quite a lot of hot rhetorical air, but achieved very little. It is really as if all the billions spent on and by NED, USAID, the State Department’s Human Rights bureau, and the rest have been a transfer payment to middle class Americans much, much more than they have been real crusades, with tangible results, for democracy in unfree countries.
Hillary Clinton, when she was First Lady, visited Tunisia one time when I happened to be there, and she gave support to the regime of Ben Ali, ostentatiously visiting some model housing project in Tunis that, supposedly, represented splendidly his program of gradual improvement. The Obama administration only a few weeks ago was congratulating Ben Ali as a partner in the war against terror and a model of orderly economic progress, even if a bit backward in areas like press freedom (there are no independent news media in Tunisia and until the recent riots, the Internet was under tight control). In between, the Bush administration took the same line.
There was nothing shocking in these gestures: they represent normal state-to-state courtesies that, unless we want to call into question the whole system of international relations, we can scarcely avoid. But since that is so obviously so, what difference does it make to the Tunisian regime if the State Department, in its annual human rights report, gives it low marks? Or even that the U.S. Embassy, according to a Wikileak document, refers to the joint as a police state? To the defunct regime, all this meant is that we are wimps; to the opposition activists and truth tellers like the imprisoned Taoufik Ben Brik — “the last journalist in Tunisia,” as he was known — it can only signify that we are not what we pretend to be.
The point is that purely from a foreign policy perspective, it would be better to jettison the entire democracy-and-human-rights baggage and simply say forthrightly that we, as a nation, support liberty and we wish liberals everywhere a good fight and godspeed, but as a matter of statecraft the issue of freedom outside our borders only becomes part of our strategy when we know it is of clear benefit to us and we expect our policies to have tangible consequences. .
In this regard, the 1970s-'80s policy of supporting human rights in the Soviet Union, including the right to emigrate, is exemplary. It became an effective tactic that weakened our adversary, while doing real good to real people. It preceded, and really had nothing to do with, the human rights industry as it developed in certain bureaus of the State Department and associated boondoggles like NED and USAID and their NGO subcontractors. Indeed, putting pressure on the Soviets on issues of human rights and emigration even preceded the famous Jackson-Vanik amendment, which in a very real sense was the initial big investment in that industry and thus a terrible precedent.
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