When “Good” Dictators Go Bad
by Norman Solomon
A standard zigzag of political rhetoric went for a jaunt along Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday (Feb. 15) with a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at George Washington University. “Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people,” she declared. During the last few weeks, much has changed in the politics of the Middle East — but not much has changed in the politics of Washington, where policymakers turn phrases on a dime.
The currency is doublespeak, antithetical to a single standard of human rights.
And so, the secretary of state condemns awful Iran, invoking “our sense of human dignity, the rights that flow from it and the principles that ground it.” But don’t hold your breath for any such condemnation of, say, Saudi Arabia — surely an “awful” government that “routinely violates the rights of its people.”
It wasn’t long ago that Hosni Mubarak’s regime — with all its repression and torture — enjoyed high esteem and lavish praise in Washington. For Egyptians, the repression and torture went on; for the bipartisan savants running U.S. foreign policy, the suppression was good geopolitics.
As recently as Jan. 27, when Joe Biden appeared on the “PBS NewsHour,” the official U.S. line about the despot of Egypt was enough to make Orwell’s coffin spin. Was it time for Mubarak to go? “No,” Biden replied. “I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that — to be more responsive to some . . . of the needs of the people out there.”
The interviewer, Jim Lehrer, is hardly a tough questioner of red-white-and-blue officialdom, but he did press the vice president on whether Mubarak was a dictator. Biden replied: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with — with Israel. . . . I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
Secretary of State Clinton is correct when she says that Iran’s regime is “awful.” I caught a glimpse six years ago, at Tehran University, when police and Basij thugs broke up a peaceful demonstration for women’s rights. Over lunch one day, an Iranian talked about the torture of friends in prison and described the people in charge as “monsters.” These days, the repression in Iran is far worse.
Meanwhile, the torture of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia is no less horrific — while the U.S. government’s winks and nods toward the Saudi regime are no less pernicious today than they were for decades while Mubarak’s henchmen did their foul deeds in Egypt. In both cases, the cruelty has been OK with Washington since it has been perpetrated by (cue Biden) “an ally of ours in a number of things” that has been “very responsible . . . relative to geopolitical interest in the region.”
On the same day as Clinton’s selectively righteous speech blasting an awful regime in the Middle East, my colleagues at RootsAction launched “An Open Letter to the People of Egypt.”
“From the United States, we watched as you stood up for democracy, faced huge obstacles and used nonviolent action to depose a dictator,” the letter says. “We send you our congratulations and appreciation for showing us — and people all over the planet — the power of mobilized humanity in the quest for justice and freedom.”
The letter adds: “As Americans, we have a responsibility to reset U.S. government policies in Egypt and the entire region. Last week, thousands of us signed a letter demanding that Obama apologize for our country’s three decades of support for the Mubarak regime. Now, in the absence of a presidential apology, we take it upon ourselves to apologize. We resolve to work for human rights in solidarity with you, calling for a swift transition for democracy in Egypt. We intend to work so that U.S. foreign policy truly becomes aligned with the values of democracy and human rights.”
Signing the open letter is a statement of solidarity with pro-democracy movements — and a rejection of Washington’s ongoing double standard on human rights. But our words won’t accomplish much unless we match them with effective political organizing in the days and years ahead.