Special Report

How Not to Promote Freedom in Africa

From Tunisia to Sudan to the Ivory Coast, the bankruptcy of U.S. democracy-promotion programs.

By 1.17.11

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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.

Regardless -- before or after Jackson-Vanik -- the point is that pressure was brought to bear on the Soviets as a factor in an overall diplo-politico-military strategy. It was done by ordinary FSOs (Foreign Service Officers), not by specialists in a featherbed called the NED, or even the Bureau of Human Rights. Why does the State Department need such a bureau? Every FSO, every ambassador, is a representative of democracy, of the Republic of Liberty. By bureaucratizing freedom, we simply obfuscate our message.

OUR "DEMOCRACY PROMOTION" POLICY toward the Arab-Muslim world demonstrates the bankruptcy of our programs to a sickening extent. Not a single Arab-Muslim country has become more liberal since the instigation of these official foreign policy goals during the Carter and Reagan administrations. The slight gains registered in some countries -- Morocco made small gains in women's rights, for example, Algeria has a press that is much freer than it was during the Boumediene years, Kuwait has made some overall gains, as has Qatar -- owe nothing, absolutely nothing, to programs funded by any branch, or quasi-branch, of the U.S. government. By contrast, Lebanon has failed as a free country, whereas prior to the Carter and Reagan years it was probably the freest Arab country.

Pakistan, a non-Arab Muslim country, was relatively cool and laid-back prior to our official democracy industry. It is now a land of hysterical madmen, one of the craziest and most dangerous places on earth.

Are these anarchic and tyrannous societies our fault? Of course not. Is it the fault of our democracy industry? Of course not. But has the democracy industry done any good? No. Might there have been more progress in liberalizing the Arabo-Muslim world without the democracy industry? Possibly -- because our policy would not have been a bundle of contradictions with half-educated bureaucrats tripping all over one another, wasting money, trying to carry out incoherent policy directives, always finally more concerned about their own careers (doing well while doing good is the cynical Washington quip) than in their putative mission.

By coincidence, the Obama administration just released an official review of U.S. foreign aid policy, what we call soft power.

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review on foreign aid proposes, essentially, to continue the policy of throwing money at ex-colonial countries and looking the other way when it is pocketed by the thugs that run them.

USAID, under the proposed spending, would see its budget increase into the $20 billion stratosphere, while its staff would grow by 5,500, more than doubling its current level. The historical record is that the more money is given to soft power agencies, the more paper these agencies generate in Washington, and the less democracy and clean water systems get to Africa.

The NED Arab programs for years were big, at least on paper, on gender equality. Tunisia, as it happens, always made women's rights one of the cover stories for its success. We may not have the freest political system in the world, the line went, but look at our emancipated women. Incrementally, and supposedly with help from our programs, this was also supposed to be the trend in places like Morocco and Egypt, one-man autocracies where U.S. leaders, with appropriate cheering from the democracists, always managed to find silver linings amid leaden skies.

But any visitor to an Arab country over the years can tell you that the trend seems to be toward veils and even burqas; and outside the few "liberated" neighborhoods in the toniest zones of Tunis or Cairo or Marrakesh, the only ones our democracy missionaries dare visit, the status of women in Arab countries is scarcely a matter for celebration by feminists or democrats. Throughout the Algerian civil war, when school teachers, women's rights advocates, journalists, and democratic trade union leaders were fighting for their lives against an Islamist insurgency, the social democrats at NED nary lifted a finger.

In any event, notwithstanding the billions budgeted for items like "rule of law" and "election processes" and "civil society" and "women's rights," one has only to glance at the arc of crisis stretching across the northern third of Africa to see the success of our approach to the battle for hearts and minds in the vast and perilous region where Arab Islam and black Africa meet. We were never very good in this sphere, and since the demise of Soviet imperialism we have got worse.

OUR INEPTITUDE IS VIEWED by Africans as cynicism, and it breeds contempt. They increasingly turn to the Chinese, who make it clear that if they provide a quo, they expect a quid. The Chinese get natural resources that their expanding industries and growing consumer sector demand. The Africans get infrastructure development -- road, rail, sanitation systems.

If there are gains in "good governance" on the side, so much the better, but this is never the Chinese sales pitch. They helped the Khartoum regime, and now they are already offering to help the new regime in Juba, capital of the new nation of South Sudan, and they are not wringing their hands about free and fair elections and human rights.

On the other side of North Africa, there lies another example of the cynicism of our democracy policies. In 1975, the Spaniards withdrew from their Colorado-sized slice of the Sahara, wedged on the Atlantic coast between Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania. The natives were promised a free and fair election to determine their status, but the U.S., notwithstanding its steadfast support for this U.N.-endorsed position, has never tried to enforce it.

The result has been one of the longest stand-offs in African affairs, 15 years of guerrilla war followed by 20 years of diplomatic stalemate. Just before Christmas the two sides -- the Moroccan government and the representatives of the native tribes (called Sahrawis) -- agreed to reconvene (on Long Island) for further talks "soon."

The American interest, at a minimum, ought to be to keep Qaeda out of Africa and to go mano-a-mano with the Chinese for the Continent's hearts and minds -- and resources. This would be to everyone's advantage -- political and economic competition and let the best win.

However, it appears America's Africanists prefer to forfeit the game. From one administration to the other, we waffle and demur. On the question of the Western Sahara, we nod one year toward Morocco's policy of de facto annexation (called autonomy), the next toward self-determination through free-and-fair elections. The Sahrawis, living in shabby dignity in the territory or in refugee areas across the border in Algeria, are, in the minds of our democracists, as Navajos and Cheyennes were in the glory days of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, valuable mainly for jobs they create in Washington.

South of the Sahara, we tut-tut as free-and-fair elections are shown up for a complete farce in the Ivory Coast. Since the second round in the November presidential election in that little jewel of a West African nation, two claimants to the palace, I mean the presidency, have dug in their heels: the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and his rival, Alassane Ouattara, who served as prime minister late in the long rule of the country's first president-for-life-in-all-but-name, Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

The country's Constitutional Council gave the nod to Gbagbo, the Electoral Commission said Ouattara won. The truth is that no one, at present, can honestly say who received more votes. Ouattara may have won in the Muslim north, where he has his base. Gbagbo may have kept his, which is in the Christian-traditionalist south.

When, as a young school teacher and social-democrat, Gbagbo was thrown in jail by the old dictator, his prime minister did not say a word. Neither did our Sunday-school democracists say much, either. It is difficult for a man like Gbagbo -- one of the first Africans to support us in the war on terror -- to believe our protestations on the importance of free-and-fair are sincere. His rival served the dictator, who kept crocodile pits handy for people who really got on his nerves.

Washington, traditionally, has looked to Paris to get the script on Côte d'Ivoire, and the French prefer Ouattara. He is comme-il-faut, he knows the presidents of major Western countries, and he is a former ranking official of the IMF. Gbagbo was a working man and a democrat when, due to Cold War priorities, we really did not think that was the in thing in Africa.

None of this necessarily means much in trying to understand the political situation in the Ivory Coast, mind, but it gives the free-and-fair protestations an off-key sound. If neither USAID nor NED was able to promote a calm and serene free-and-fair in little Ivory Coast any more than in tiny Tunisia, why do they need budget increases? Why not just pack up and go home? And since we never helped, why are we now acting like bullies in telling the Ivoirians who their president is?

The Ivory vote was required by a French-brokered 2007 agreement to reunite a country divided by civil war in 2003, Houphouet's successors having been incapable of maintaining two quite distinct regions together. Reunion will accomplish the opposite of the desired outcome in Sudan: reimpose the colonial borders. The Ivory Coast south of Bouake is preponderantly Catholic, dominated by Baole and Bete tribes whose outlook is shaped by the commercial culture of coastal West Africa. To the north, the savannahs blend into the Sahel, the long "coast" along the Sahara's southern shore that stretches from the Atlantic to north Sudan and the Red Sea. People here come from Burkina Faso (ex Upper Volta), or their families did, and they read the Koran rather than the Bible.

THIS IS ALL VERY SAD but it is also very dangerous. From Sudan to the Western Sahara, passing by the tottering Ben Ali and the impossible situation in the Ivory Coast, we see an arc or crisis that, if it snaps, will benefit our enemies. The Sahara represents an almost impenetrable sanctuary for the jihadists who call themselves AQIM -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These are serious killers, as they demonstrate every now and then. Most recently, a brazen kidnap-murder operation against French development workers took place in downtown Niamey, a laid back city in Niger where no one expected trouble. The French sent a commando unit to hunt down this gang, but there are many more where they come from.

AQIM follows an all-points strategy, probing for opportunities in every direction. Our response is to sing the free-and-fair elections mantra, and not even consistently. Sudan always was two countries -- why the wasted time and effort when a policy of forthright support for the South would have by now got us a base in one of the most strategic locations on the Continent, opposite the Middle East and astride Arab and black Africa? On the Atlantic side, effective control of the Western Sahara surely weighs more than who is the nominal sovereign -- the people who live there or the sultan of Morocco -- so why not just do whatever needs doing, instead of broadcasting that our talk of exporting democracy is a cynical sham?

If past experience is any guide, Ben Ali having gone the way of the Shah, our democracists have made it as likely as not that Tunisian democrats have just enough time to thank us for nothing before the resurgent Islamists sweep them away.

As to the Ivory Coast, instead of quietly letting its two halves devolve from the center that only the old dictator could hold, and then letting the separate socio-cultural entities find their way back naturally into some kind of federal arrangement that could be a bastion of pro-Americanism in a key region between the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea and the Sahel, we are risking a catastrophe on the scale of the Nigeria-Biafra war. Which none of our democracists even remember.

The Wilsonian idea of promoting American interests by making the world safe for democracy is not without merit, but it is difficult to see where it has been implemented effectively since Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, each in his own way, gave the world the notion that the U.S. places human rights and democracy at the center of its foreign policy. The question should be asked whether this has been a historic mistake. Liberal democracy really does not have much of a record outside the English-speaking lands. We can promote freedom far more effectively than we can our culturally-bound systems of liberal democratic governance, based as it is on the rule of law, property rights, and so forth. But freedom means letting people go their way and not sending them cynical signals about democratic standards that lead to perdition.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.