Playing the Democracy Card

<b>By Dilip Hiro</b><br> How America furthers its national interests in the Middle East

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By Dilip Hiro

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Have we really almost rolled around — yet again — to the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, this time amid much Bush administration and neocon self-congratulation, as well as media congratulations (grudging or otherwise) for an Iraqi-election-inspired spread of democracy in the Middle East? And what will we be congratulating ourselves on next year, when the usefulness of “democracy” passes, oil prices continue to rise, and the war in Iraq grinds on?

Right now, we’re in “Arab Spring,” “the Cedar revolution,” “a mighty storm,” and opinions on what’s actually going on in the Middle East are varied indeed. Youssef M. Ibrahim, a thoughtful former New York Times reporter, writes from Dubai for the Washington Post:

“Listen to the conversations in the cafes on the edge of the creek that runs through this Persian Gulf city, and it is hard to believe that the George W. Bush being praised by Arab diners is the same George W. Bush who has been widely excoriated in these parts ever since he took office… Nowadays, intellectuals, businessmen and working-class people alike can be caught lauding Bush’s hard-edged posture on democracy and cheering his handling of Arab rulers who are U.S. allies… It’s enough for someone like me, who has felt that Bush’s attitude toward the Mideast has been all wrong, to wonder whether his idea of setting the Muslim house in order is right.”

Or could it be, as Robert Kuttner suggested recently in the American Prospect magazine, that democracy is indeed threatening to break out in the Middle East, but no thanks to Bush? Or are the Bush people just using a new “Arab Spring” logo to “rebrand” their failing efforts, as Naomi Klein suggests in the Nation? (“Faced with an Arab world enraged by its occupation of Iraq and its blind support for Israel, the US solution is not to change these brutal policies; it is, in the pseudo-academic language of corporate branding, to ‘change the story.'”)

Or is it possible, as conservative Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis proposes, that the man responsible for springtime in Lebanon is not George Bush, but Osama bin Laden, and that the democratic reforms breaking out in American client states in the Middle East are mostly “pure sham”? Or could it be that, in Lebanon at least, we’ve confused the urge of a significant segment of the public to be free of an occupying force with “democracy.” After all, as Juan Cole writes at his Informed Comment website, “The Lebanese have been having often lively parliamentary election campaigns for decades. The idea that the urbane and sophisticated Beirutis had anything to learn from the Jan. 30 process in Iraq is absurd on the face of it.”

Or could it be that, as Seumas Milne writes in a fierce column in the British Guardian:

“The claim that democracy is on the march in the Middle East is a fraud. It is not democracy, but the US military, that is on the march… What has actually taken place since 9/11 and the Iraq war is a relentless expansion of US control of the Middle East, of which the threats to Syria are a part. The Americans now have a military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar — and in not one of those countries did an elected government invite them in. Of course Arabs want an end to tyrannical regimes, most of which have been supported over the years by the US, Britain and France: that is the source of much anti-western Muslim anger. The dictators remain in place by US licence, which can be revoked at any time — and managed elections are being used as another mechanism for maintaining pro-western regimes rather than spreading democracy.”

At the very least, there can be little question that the Iraq invasion and occupation has destabilized the region (as the neocons, who had long assumed that chaos would be their ally, hoped it would). But the Bush administration must know that genuinely free elections in its various client and allied states would likely sweep Islamic parties, including in some places the Muslim Brotherhood, into power. Not exactly a dream for them. So, in Iraq, they created a “democracy” so weak (a gridlock-inducing two-thirds vote is needed in the new National Assembly even to form a government) that it would be unlikely to rule successfully over anything; while no administration official spoke up when Tunisia’s military strongman, in another U.S.-allied regime, won re-election with 94.5% of the vote (a total that might have made Saddam Hussein proud).

Less noted as well have been other destabilizing signs that might not serve the Bush administration’s story-line so admirably. For instance, the spread of terrorism in Kuwait as well as Saudi Arabia (with Jordan waiting in the wings), or the rise in the price of an AK-47 assault rifle in Lebanon from $100 in the pre-Cedar Revolution days to $700 now — a sign of the jitters and, undoubtedly, of fears that the country’s civil war might return. Or what about another kind of “spreading” story: The Pentagon is set to introduce Matrix, a new remote-controlled land-mine system, in democratic Iraq by May. (These mines can evidently be set off by a soldier stationed at a laptop computer miles away, based on blips registering on his screen — a surefire formula for democratic “collateral damage.”)

Meanwhile, cheering away for an Arab spring, the Bush administration is also reportedly at work on the beginnings of a democratic winter in Latin America. The British Financial Times reports that a new policy is being formulated — “at the request of President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice” — to “contain” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (Of course, the Bush administration has already tried to overthrow the man — a democratic coup d’état, naturally.) Don’t these Financial Times quotes from Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs at the Department of Defense, sound familiar? “Chávez is a problem because he is clearly using his oil money and influence to introduce his conflictive style into the politics of other countries… He’s picking on the countries whose social fabric is the weakest. In some cases it’s downright subversion.” Don’t they do a pretty reasonable job of describing the Bush administration?

In addition to an Arabian Spring and a Latin Winter, it looks like we’re going to get a variety of bonus seasons: What about a UN Fall, thanks to the nomination of John Bolton as our ambassador there? Or a long, hot World Bank Summer, given the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to be the bank’s next head? Or an Alaskan Thaw, thanks to the Senate’s vote this week paving the way for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

When I consider the Iraq War and the Arab Spring, I can’t help thinking of the myth of Pandora. It seems, at least as Gustav Schwab tells the story in his Gods and Heroes, Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece, that Zeus, angry at Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, had the fire-god Hephaestus create a beautiful woman, Pandora (“she who has gifts from all”). Zeus then sent her as a present to Prometheus’s not-so-sharp brother, carrying a tightly closed box the gods had filled with baleful “gifts” for humanity — and you know the rest. When Pandora opened the box, all the ills that humanity until then had avoided came tumbling out, leaving only one small good thing at the bottom — hope. Whether hope even made it out of the box seems to depend on which version of the myth you read.

For the global gamblers of the Bush administration, Iraq was that box. When they blasted its lid off, the resulting shock-and-awe blew back on everyone. But at the bottom of the box, there’s always that one small unpredictable thing. Thank the Bush administration, if you will, for the mayhem of the Middle East, but (as veteran journalist and Middle Eastern expert Dilip Hiro makes clear in the piece that follows,) don’t thank any American government of recent times for an Arab spring, if it really comes. The historical record tells us otherwise. Just thank the gods above, or luck, or our natures, for the fact that, even amid mayhem, there’s usually hope somewhere; and that, despite every horror, there are usually human beings ready to make some modest use of it. Tom

Playing the Democracy Card

How America Furthers Its National Interests in the Middle East
By Dilip Hiro

The United States flaunts the banner of democracy in the Middle East only when that advances its economic, military, or strategic interests. The history of the past six decades shows that whenever there has been conflict between furthering democracy in the region and advancing American national interests, U.S. administrations have invariably opted for the latter course. Furthermore, when free and fair elections in the Middle East have produced results that run contrary to Washington’s strategic interests, it has either ignored them or tried to block the recurrence of such events.

Washington’s active involvement in the region began in 1933 when Standard Oil Company of California bid ten times more than the British-dominated Iraq Petroleum Company for exclusive petroleum exploration rights in Saudi Arabia’s eastern Hasa province.

As a leading constituent of Allied forces in World War II, the U.S. got its break in Iran after the occupation of that country by the British and the Soviets in August 1941. Eight months later President Franklin Roosevelt ruled that Iran was eligible for lend-lease aid. In August 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull said, “It is to our interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi Arabia.”

The emergence of Israel in 1948 added a new factor. Following its immediate recognition of Israel, Washington devised a military-diplomatic strategy in the region which rested on the triad of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the new state of Israel, with the overall aim of keeping Soviet influence out of the Middle East. While each member of the troika was tied closely to the U.S., and links between Iran and Israel became progressively tighter, Saudi Arabia and Israel, though staunchly anti-Communist, remained poles apart. Nonetheless, the overall arrangement remained in place until the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.

Besides pursuing the common aim of countering Soviet advances in the region overtly and covertly, each member of this troika had a special function. Being contiguous with the Soviet Union, Iran under the Shah helped the Pentagon by providing it with military bases. By inflicting a lightning defeat on Egypt and Syria — then aligned with Moscow — in June 1967, Israel proved its military value to the U.S. This strengthened Washington’s resolve to get Israel accepted by its Arab neighbors, a policy it had adopted in 1948 and implemented soon after, even though it meant subverting democracy in Syria.

In March 1949, following Brig.-General Husni Zaim’s promise to make peace with Israel, the CIA helped him mount a military coup against a democratically elected government in Syria. After Zaim had signed a truce with Israel on July 20, he tried to negotiate a peace treaty with it through American officials. A month later, however, he was ousted by a group of military officers and executed. The military rule that Washington triggered lasted five years albeit under different generals.

As the possessor of the largest reserves of petroleum in the region, Saudi Arabia helped the U.S. and its Western allies by keeping oil prices low. Furthermore, as a powerful and autocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia played a leading role in helping to suppress democratic movements in the small, neighboring, oil-rich Gulf States.

American clout increased when Britain — the dominant foreign power in the region for a century and a half — withdrew from the Gulf in 1971. The British withdrawal allowed the U.S. to expand its regional role as the four freshly independent Gulf States — Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman — struggled to adjust to the new reality. But instead of pressuring these sheikhdoms to institute democracy, Washington either opted for secret defense agreements with them or let the House of Saud implement an anti-democratic agenda in the region unhindered.

The Saudi Anti-Democratic Mission

In 1962, during a severe crisis in the House of Saud, Crown Prince Faisal promised political reform, especially the promulgation of a written constitution specifying a Consultative Council, with two-thirds of its members elected. But when he ascended the throne two years later he reneged on his promise.

Washington said nothing. It also remained silent when Riyadh helped suppress democracy in neighboring countries.

After its independence from Britain in 1961, Kuwait acquired a constitution which specified a National Assembly elected on a franchise limited to males belonging to families domiciled in Kuwait since 1921 — in other words, about a fifth of adult citizens. Despite its limited nature, the Assembly evolved into a popular forum for expressing the aspirations and grievances of several important constituencies. Stung by criticism of official policies by its representatives, and encouraged by the Saudi monarch, Kuwaiti Emir Sabah ibn Salim al Sabah suspended the Assembly in 1976, accusing it of “malicious behavior,” and then dissolved it. Its revival in 1981 lasted a mere five years.

At no point did Washington criticize the ruler’s undemocratic actions.

Since 1992, when limited parliamentary elections were restored, voters have returned more Islamist MPs than pro-Western liberals. Emir Jabar ibn Ahmad al Sabah’s efforts to extend the vote to women have failed, while he has made no move to extend the vote to the remaining four-fifths of adult male citizens — nor has America pressured him to do so. He and the Americans fear, of course, that a universal adult male franchise would bolster the strength of the Islamist bloc in the Assembly.

Bahrain: Limited Democracy Derailed

In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s anti-democratic mission melded with America’s military needs. Bahrain became independent in August 1971. Its constitution, drafted by a constituent assembly (half nominated, half elected on a limited franchise), specified a National Assembly of 42 deputies, 30 of whom were to be elected on a restricted franchise. The first Assembly convened in December 1972 while Saudi Arabia watched warily.

As in Kuwait, however, the elected representatives criticized the government, angering the ruler, Shaikh Isa al Khalifa. This — combined with pressure from Riyadh — led the Emir to dissolve the Assembly in August 1975 and suspend the constitution.

Once again, Washington said nothing about the quashing of limited democracy in Bahrain. Why? In 1971, after the Pentagon leased naval facilities previously used by the British, Bahrain became the headquarters of the American Middle East Force. In 1977, the ruler extended the US-Bahraini agreement; and in 1995 Bahrain became the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Jordan: An Election Law Altered by Decree

Jordan provides another telling example of how American administrations have dealt with democracy in the Middle East. In an uncommonly free and fair election in November 1989, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, won 32 seats in the 80-member House of Representatives. It joined the government and ran five ministries.

During the 1990 Kuwait crisis which culminated in the 1991 Gulf War, the Jordanian king took into account popular opinion, both inside and outside parliament, which was opposed to joining the US-led alliance against Iraq, and advocated a negotiated solution to the crisis. By so doing, he acted as a constitutional monarch.

Instead of praising this welcome democratic development, the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush pilloried Hussein as “a dwarf king.” Unable to stand the pressure, King Hussein crawled back into Washington’s fold after the 1991 Gulf War. To thwart the possibility of the IAF emerging as the leading party in the next election, he altered the election law by decree. In quietly applauding his action, the elder Bush’s administration showed its cynical disregard for democracy.

Egypt: Supporting the Autocrat

While King Hussein manipulated the Jordanian political system with some sophistication to achieve the result he wanted, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt blatantly used the government machinery and state-run media to produce a pre-ordained electoral result to endorse his signing of the U.S.-brokered bilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1978-79 after he had broken ranks with the Arab League.

The depth and durability of popular antipathy towards peace with Israel, while it continues to occupy the Palestinian Territories, is highlighted by the fact that a quarter-century after the peace treaty, relations between the two neighbors remain cold. While remaining firmly under American tutelage, President Husni Mabarak has continued to spurn offers to visit Tel Aviv.

As in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest political party in the Middle East and long outlawed in Egypt, offers a credible challenge to the semi-dictatorship of Mubarak (in power since 1981). His regime has continued to be the second largest recipient of the U.S. aid after Israel under both Democratic and Republican Presidents.

Several months ago, Mubarak mused that democracy in Egypt would mean Muslim Brotherhood rule over the country. The key question now is: Will Mubarak — who recently agreed to hold the Presidential election scheduled for September through “direct, secret balloting” instead of simply rubber-stamping his sole candidacy in a stage-managed referendum — let the Brotherhood challenge him?

The answer will come in the wording with which Article 76 of the constitution will be amended and passed by a Parliament dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. At present, it specifies a single presidential candidate, endorsed by at least two-thirds of parliamentary deputies, to be offered to the voters for approval.

Yemen: Rebuffing Democracy

Another victim of the way American administrations have placed their narrow interests above any program to democratize the Middle East was Yemen. Ever since the creation of Republic of Yemen, following the union of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1991, the country has had a multiparty political system. Indeed, since North Yemen had been governed by the General People’s Congress and South Yemen by the Yemen Socialist Party, a peaceful unification could only come about through the creation of a multi-party system.

In April 1993, the government organized the first general election on the Arabian Peninsula based on universal suffrage. It was for a 301-member House of Representatives and the Presidency. This historic event went unnoticed in the United States where the Clinton administration continued to rebuff the Yemeni government because of its insistence on an Arab solution to the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis and its negative vote on United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 authorizing military action against Iraq.

Encouraged by the Yemeni election, six Saudi human rights activists — professors, judges, and senior civil servants — established the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) in Saudi Arabia. It demanded political reform in the kingdom, including elections based on universal suffrage. Government persecution followed, including job dismissals and arrests. Prof. Muhammad al Masaari, the head of the CDLR, managed to flee first to Yemen, and then to Britain.

Yet Washington did not protest.

Now George W. Bush loudly applauds the local elections held recently in the Saudi Kingdom. His administration ignores the fact that only half of the seats were even open for contest, and so distrustful were Saudi citizens of their government’s electoral promise that only a quarter of eligible voters even bothered registered. Women were, of course, barred from voting.

By contrast, Bush endlessly laments the absence of freedom for the people of Iran, which his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently described as “a totalitarian state.” These statements run counter to the facts. Since the 1979 revolution in that country, the Islamic regime has held seven parliamentary, eight presidential, and two local elections — as well as four Assembly of Experts polls — all of them multi-candidate and based on universal suffrage with a voting age of 15.

What explains this blatant myopia? While practicing an Islamic version of democracy, Iran is actively opposing the economic, military, and strategic ambitions of America in the region.

Actually, the historic pattern of American administrations in the Middle East — downgrading democracy at the expense of narrow national interests — is in line with what the United States has been practicing in Central and South America for a much longer period — a phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed in the United States itself.

Dilip Hiro is the author of The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (Caroll & Graf) and Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After (Nation Books).

Copyright 2005 Dilip Hiro

A printed version of this article, which first appeared at, will run in Middle East International, no. 746.


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