By William Fisher
The juxtaposition of oil, human rights, and the "global war on terror" has exposed a giant fault line in the Bush Administration's foreign policy, revealing inconsistency and hypocrisy.
In his second inaugural address, the president pledged to make spreading freedom around the world the cornerstone of U.S. international relations. America would no longer tolerate its cozy relationships with dictatorial and repressive governments. We would stop supporting regimes that consistently showed up on the State Department's annual list of human rights violators.
After the scandals of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay, it was never going to be easy for the U.S. to maintain any credibility for its freedom agenda. But some of us continued to cling to a few hopeful signs; for example, the Administration's arm-twisting of Egypt's aging dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to open its presidential elections to multiple candidates.
For twenty-five years, Egypt remained second only to Israel as a recipient of U.S. military and economic assistance, while its Emergency Law made a mockery of due process and freedom of association and expression. Now we would no longer give Mubarak his usual "get out of jail" free pass. Now we would attach strings to our massive largesse.
So Egypt mollified us with a kind of faux presidential election, albeit it deeply flawed by placing impossible limitations on who could challenge the Mubarak regime at the polls. And the leading opposition figure, Ayman Nour, ended up in jail.
That was followed by a Parliamentary election that was rife with vote-rigging, disenfranchisement, violent attacks on voters and peaceful protesters, and the arrest of hundreds of Egyptian citizens. Despite flagrant police interference, the banned Muslim Brotherhood - the Middle East's poster child for political Islam - managed to win 88 seats in Parliament.
Judges who called on the government to allow them to conduct an inquiry into election irregularities were stripped of their judicial immunity, opening the possibility that they could be questioned by police, arrested, and tried.
The U.S. reaction to this Egyptian "democracy" charade was the equivalent of a mild slap on the wrist. The State Department expressed its "disappointment."
It had the same reaction last week, when Mubarak pushed through a two-year extension of the 25-year-old Emergency Law, despite his pledge to repeal it in favor of anti-terror legislation.
Egypt first adopted this draconian law in 1981 in response to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and at its height it was used to detain more than 30,000 prisoners indefinitely without charge. Mr. Mubarak has had the law renewed every three years since - and today human rights groups estimate that there are approximately 15,000 uncharged prisoners in Egypt's jails.
The law expressly allows the authorities to hold individuals for months without being charged or tried. But in practice, legal experts say, the government goes through the motions of technically releasing prisoners and then re-arresting them, without ever having actually let them go.
In effect, the law is the fire blanket the government has thrown over all dissent, including press freedom.
Said a State Department spokesman in response to a reporter's question at the very end of a press briefing last week: "It's a disappointment. It's a disappointment. We understand that Egypt has certainly facing its own issues related to terrorism, but President Mubarak during the presidential campaign had talked about the fact that he was going to seek a new emergency law, but one that would be targeted specifically at fighting terrorism, counterterrorism, and that would take into account respect for freedom of speech as well as human rights. Certainly we would like to see President Mubarak and his government follow through on that pledge."
What has happened here is that President Bush's pledge to rein in support for dictators has been trumped by two other strategic considerations: rewarding those countries who are U.S. allies in the "Global War on Terror" and romancing other countries that have oil and gas resources, despite their outrageous human rights records.
The list of U.S. allies in the "Global War on Terror" could well be headed, "The Coalition of the Despots." The democracy-spreader in the White House seems all too willing to overlook the long histories of repression, autocracy and human rights violations of such countries as Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, Jordan - even Syria, which U.S. officials have recently begun praising for its efforts to keep terrorists out of Iraq.
Clearly the U.S. and other like-minded countries need to do whatever is likely to reduce threats of terrorism. But the Administration has apparently concluded that hunting down the bad guys - no matter by what methods -- has a higher priority than working to create the transparency and good governance practices that, ironically, might just help to kill jihadism at its poisonous roots.
More recently, as Iran is seen as a gathering threat and the insatiable
oil-appetites of fast-growing economies like China and India put pressure on the world's energy supplies, the Bush Administration has begun its delicate minuet with energy-rich states.
And so access to oil and gas becomes another issue that apparently trumps respect for democratic rule of law - and another sorry substitute for an energy policy that could curb America's addiction to oil by developing non-fossil energy sources.
America's partners in this new minuet include such pillars of democracy as Azerbaijan, one the most corrupt countries in the world, and Equatorial Guinea, whose dictatorial president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, was recently praised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
And Vice President Cheney will soon visit oil-rich Kazakhstan, whose president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has long been a poster child for repression and corruption.
As my colleague Jim Lobe wrote recently, "Give Me That Old-Time Geo-Politics" is becoming a Bush Administration theme song.
But what makes these gaping policy contradictions so bizarre is not their geo-politics. It is the stark contrast between what America says and what America does. When our president vowed to spread freedom throughout the world, we might have thought him too idealistic, but we applauded - and we expected him to do what he promised.
Sadly, he seems to be giving up the good fight.