In the short section of his recent State of the Union address dealing with foreign policy, President Obama stated that "America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. Always." It was an obvious reference to the turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the Muslim world and an obvious banality that belies past history.
Anyone looking through the actions of the United States at least since the end of the Cold War can easily see that the U.S. has continually supported authoritarian if not totalitarian governments that were friendly to the United States.
And yet, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned at a meeting of business and civil society leaders in Qatar on January 13 that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand." Specifically, she said "people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order," at the Forum for the Future 24 hours before Mr. Ben Ali was driven from office in Tunisia.
Has the United States changed its policy of preferring stability over uncertainty? Is the U.S. genuinely behind street movements that appear to represent genuine democratic yearnings? Two historical reminders: The first foreign president to address the U.S. Congress was the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. When asked how the American government could give such an honor to such a man, President Franklin Roosevelt replied, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch."
Second, Jeane Kirkpatrick, foreign policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and Ambassador to the United Nations, made a famous distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In a 1979 article she wrote, "Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies" in one of the most famous essays in American foreign policy. In other words, the United States should favor authoritarian regimes friendly to the United States rather than risk revolutionary regimes such as in Cuba or Venezuela which may be either repressive and/or unfriendly to U.S. interests.
It is against this background that one wonders about the current statements by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Is the United States willing to accept a democratic government in Lebanon that includes Hezbollah? Is the United States willing to accept a democratic government in Egypt that includes the Muslim Brotherhood? Recent history in Algeria and the Middle East would lead to certain skepticism about a fundamental change in policy.
A cynic would say that the United States is changing policy because it sees the writing on the wall. Demographics and unemployment figures point to declining popularity of the rulers in most of the Middle East. Instead of being caught unawares as the French were in Tunisia, the United States is laying the groundwork for friendly relations with the next generation of leaders, whoever they may be. The Mubaraks and Ben Alis are history and pragmatism dictates betting on new leaders.
Whatever the reasons, the change of discourse coming from the current administration is a welcome from the historic blind acceptance of friendly rulers regardless of their policies. Distinctions between authoritarian and totalitarian should be as much a part of history as George Kennan's containment policy toward the Soviet Union and Francis Fukuyama's euphoric end of history and victory of capitalism. One would hope that a modern day Somoza would not be invited to address the Congress; the days of rewarding leaders such as the former Colombian President Uribe should become a thing of the past. Obama and Clinton should be held to their words.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei made a most interesting comment on the West's predilection for stability over democracy. "'Stability' is a very pernicious word, "he was quoted in the International Herald Tribune. "Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?" Indeed, the words of the U.S. administration in the face of uprisings throughout the Muslim world run counter to generations of blind support for "stable" governments. The rhetoric of change is welcome, but perhaps too late for those who lived under repressive regimes supported by the United States. The street is screaming for freedom and democracy, something the United States did not support for decades, and it would be most surprising if the new generation of leaders to emerge will look to Washington as their beacon and ally.