Should We Support Rebels or Dictators?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s London Correspondent

The United States stands for democracy. The country is built on democracy, it celebrates democracy, and it promotes democracy in its foreign policy. If the U.S. government wishes to retain the respect of its citizens and of people around the globe (a respect that has been draining away in recent years), it must consistently support democracy all over the world, regardless of its other economic or political interests. Because of this, the U.S. should support the rebels in democratizing revolutions such as the Arab Spring, regardless of its own ties with the dictators or the instability that may follow.

The Arab Spring spread through the Middle East starting in early 2011, beginning in Tunisia and reaching Egypt, Libya and Syria, among others nations, in the following months. Through this movement, rebels – either by peaceful protest, such as in Egypt, or by fighting with government forces, as in Libya – struggled to overthrow long-standing dictators who were often accused of human rights violations. These events sparked extensive debate over how the U.S. should respond. Should it arm the rebels in Libya, for example, while uncertain of who exactly the rebels are and with no guarantee that the weapons will not fall into terrorist hands? How should the U.S. respond to the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, one of its longtime allies? Should it support the rebellion there and tell Mubarak to step down, even though such actions would anger other allies, such as in Saudi Arabia?

Despite the complicated debate over these issues, the answer is fairly simple. The U.S. should not put its own interests in oil, trade and strategic management of the Middle East above human rights. Although the U.S. is not the world’s police force, it should refuse to support dictators who brutalize their people, and so should support, in word if not in deed, rebels who seek to overthrow these dictators. If peaceful demonstrators find themselves under attack from well-armed military forces, the global community, including the U.S., should do their part to prevent the violence if possible, and to arm those fighting for democracy if no other alternative is available. Human lives should always come first, and the U.S. should be seen to work on the side of justice, and not on the side of personal economic gain.

Unfortunately, such an approach to the rebellions this year has turned the U.S. into an international hypocrite. Can a country urge democracy on Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, while calling Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates its great allies, and avoiding addressing the authoritarian regime in Syria as much as possible? Even if the U.S. acts with the best of intentions towards those countries undergoing revolution, this behavior makes the U.S. appear suspect to new leaders in the Middle East, where the U.S. is already incredibly unpopular, and gives the appearance that the U.S. has an agenda beyond democracy and, ultimately, stability in the region. The U.S. must therefore be careful to phrase its support carefully, making clear that it is willing to support home-grown revolution, that it does not support dictatorships, but that it will not force democracy on a country that is not yet calling for that approach. Considering the U.S.’s close ties to Saudi Arabia, a country which was named one of the world’s worst human rights abusers by Freedom House, this approach will not work without some significant changes to U.S. foreign policy. Refusing to support dictators who systematically abuse the human rights of many of their subjects, particularly women, would be a good first step.

The war in Iraq gives a clear example of why the U.S. should not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations with military action except under extreme circumstances. Despite the people’s eagerness to vote in recent elections, the ongoing turmoil in Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi citizens suggest that a democratic movement that is forced upon a nation, rather than inspired by the citizens themselves, may not be the best approach. Even if people consider these human costs insignificant, the war has cost the U.S. over $798 billion and has severely damaged public opinion of the U.S. in the Middle East, as the war was interpreted at best as an arrogant interruption into the region’s affairs and at worst a war on Islam itself. Although the international community should obviously intervene in cases of genocide and should use its influence, particularly through the UN, to end abuses of human rights, it cannot use an invasion to stage a revolution.

The best approach to regimes and revolutions in the Middle East is to take a steady, no-nonsense stance against dictatorships and human rights abuses. No more arms sales to Saudi Arabia, no more supporting dictators simply because they provide stability to an oil-filled region. The U.S. should live up to its ideological promise of democracy and justice in all its foreign policy interactions and show potential and current protestors and fighters for democracy that it will always support their cause. In this way, the U.S. has a chance of being trusted by those involves in revolutions that do naturally occur, and so can best assist them in introducing democracy and stability to the region on the people’s own terms. Human rights and basic freedoms should be the U.S.’s primary concerns in its approach to the Arab Spring, and to any other people’s revolutions that may follow. It should therefore not focus on returning stability to the region as quickly as possible, or on actions that seem best for the U.S.’s other interests, but on ensuring that each country eventually ends up with a stable and fair government that is wanted by and working for the benefit of the people.

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