21 January 2005
In his second inaugural address yesterday, George Bush presented America as the armed wing of Amnesty International. "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
After 11 September, some of the political thinkers I most respect started unexpectedly reading from this script about US foreign policy. Christopher Hitchens is a good example. For decades, he had exposed the monstrous anti-democratic policies of the US, from the Nixon-Kissinger years to Reagan's dirty wars in South America. But after the attacks on the Twin Towers, Hitchens argued that the vicious American foreign policy he opposed had died with Bin Laden's victims.
As downtown Manhattan burned, even Republicans in Washington accepted that supporting authoritarian regimes outside America's borders would breed anti-American death cults and, sooner or later, backfire onto the homeland. Hitchens said his contacts deep within the Bush administration had decided the only solution was "a forward strategy of freedom". This would mean reversing support for dictators and planting the seeds of democracy in some of the world's worst tyrant-infested wastelands.
Even more crucially, Tony Blair believes the Bushies share thisanalysis. He said recently: "When the Americans say we want to extend democracy to these countries, or extend democracy and human rights throughout the Middle East, people say, well, that is part of the neoconservative agenda. Actually, if you put it in a different language, it is a progressive agenda." Although I was often wary, I wanted both Blair and Hitchens to be right.
At first glance, Bush's address on Capitol Hill yesterday is a restatement of this Blair-Hitchens view. The President said: "For as long as whole regions of the world fester in tyranny ... violence will raise a mortal threat." He declared that "the only force in history that can break the reign of terror" is "the expansion of human freedom".
So why do I feel so despairing and so foolish? Because the rhetoric is flatly contradicted by US action on the ground, and we simply have to be honest about it. If Bush was serious about "exporting democracy and freedom", the best place to start would be with the authoritarian regimes he currently funds, supports and deals weaponry to. Egypt - which receives a $2bn handout from the US Treasury every year - has been under 'Emergency Rule' for 25 years now. Political dissidents are routinely tortured. Pro-democracy activists are jailed. The current President, Hosni Mubarak, expects his son to succeed him as head of state. A US president committed to spreading democracy and freedom would withhold the vast sums he sprays on this authoritarian state until there is an Egyptian perestroika.
Does Bush condemn the Saud Crime Family who oversee public beheadings and commit "widespread torture with complete impunity", according to Amnesty? Not exactly. The award-winning journalist Craig Unger has shown that the House of Bush and the House of Saud have been intimate friends for over 30 years, enjoying luxury holidays and deeply intertwined business relationships. The Saudi "royals" have donated an amazing $1.4bn to the Bush family and their (mostly failed) business projects over the years. Far from urging democracy upon his petroleum-soaked buddies, Bush lauds them as "loyal allies" and "friends of America". And the list of vile governments Bush embraces goes on: Uzbekistan and Colombia are especially disturbing examples.
And it gets worse. Not only does the Bush administration support several existing dictatorships; the administration has also acted to liquidate democracy when it is incompatible with its geostrategic interests. Look at Venezuela, where the leftist government of Hugo Chavez has been supported by the electorate an extraordinary six times since 1998, often with landslide victories. Chavez - backed by a majority of the Venezuelan people - has insisted on state ownership of the nation's oil industry, the fifth-largest in the world. Unlike in every other oil-rich country - especially the ones backed by the US - much of the profit has been ploughed into schools and hospitals for the people trapped in the country's slums.
There is a lot about Chavez I find extremely worrying - he has embraced both Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, and he has eroded some media freedoms - but it is impossible to argue that he does not enjoy massive democratic support.
So what has the Bush administration's response been to this flowering of Venezuelan democracy and freedom? In 2002 - after the supposed sea-change of 11 September - they backed an anti-democratic coup to install a pro-American, pro-business candidate with little popular support. It was only massive protests on the streets of Venezuela - and a refusal by much of the Venezuelan army to act against their own country's democracy - that restored Chavez to power.
This begs the question: what does the Bush administration mean by spreading democracy? Let's look at the country where its "forward strategy of freedom" has been most aggressively pursued: Iraq. The US Defence Department is, according to Newsweek, currently considering the "Salvador option": sending in death squads to kill Sunni civilians to make them "pay a price" for possibly supporting the insurgency. So much for human rights. And democracy? Even after next week's elections, Iraqis will have no say in the running of their own country's economy. Under a US-brokered deal, the next Iraqi government - whatever its character - has to agree to allow the economy to be run by unelected, unaccountable, usually disastrous bankers from the International Monetary Fund for the next decade if they want to be freed from the burden of Saddam's swollen debts. Is there a democracy in the world that does not control its own taxes?
Yes, this neoconservative semi-democracy is somewhat better than, say, Saddam's Baathism - but it is still an affront to true democracy and human rights. There always will be some countries like Iraq where the situation is so awful that people will prefer even a US invasion to the status quo - but is that the best we can hope for?
Sadly, George Bush talked yesterday about spreading US values - democracy and freedom - only to sugar-coat the raw expansion of US corporate and strategic interests. Tony Blair and the liberals who thought we could ride neoconservatism to a better world have been duped. It is painful, but we cannot live in a dream world.
Nothing would make me happier than if the most powerful state in the world was committed to spreading democracy and toppling vicious governments. It is not; in many places, it is doing precisely the opposite. As George Bush begins his second term with another false cry, it is time to wake up.