Shine The Searchlight, Look Away

Throughout the Cold War, America was prepared to do business with some pretty unsavory dictators. As General MacArthur is alleged to have said of Chinese Nationalist, Chiang Kai Shek, “he may be a bastard, but he’s ourbastard”. The change of emphasis came with Jimmy Carter, who put human rights to the forefront of his foreign policy. Believers in realpolitik accused Carter of “losing” Iran. His policy undermined the Shah and led to the rise of an anti-American regime with a very much worse record on human rights. Common Sense is not so sure. Such an analysis overemphasizes the influence of the United States. The Shah would probably have fallen anyway.

Policy changed again with Reagan. Now the focus was not just on fighting, but winning, the Cold War. In Latin America, where Carter had harried brutal, but anti-Communist, regimes on their human rights record, Reagan was happy to turn a blind eye. Yet it was during the Reagan administration that Latin America changed fundamentally, swinging away from dictatorship towards democracy. Perhaps the daylight that Carter shone on these shocking regimes had a delayed effect. But tyrannical regimes have always used outside pressure to bolster their support internally. Perhaps Reagan’s blind eye was necessary too, before the dominoes could actually tumble.

Are there parallels with today’s Middle East? Neither George W Bush nor Jimmy Carter would welcome parallels being drawn between them. And yet, America certainly collaborated with some deeply unpleasant regimes in the Arab world for decades, even under Carter. It was George W Bush who declared that America’s interests lay with transforming Arab states into democracies. It was Bush who pressed the Israelis to allow democratic votes in the occupied territories, who introduced a functioning federal democracy to Iraq, who harried the Syrians out of Lebanon, who forced Libya to abandon its nuclear ambitions and who pressed reforms on Egypt, Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia. It is Barack Obama who has promised governments which torture and mutilate their own citizens “respect” instead of pressure to reform.

But there is just a chance that this will work. Bush pushed them towards change, and they resisted. Perhaps, now that no-one is pushing them anymore, they will adopt reforms while preserving the illusion that it was their own idea.

The Middle East is certainly changing. Iran’s Islamic Republic has probably survived the current crisis, but has been changed by it, and its future path is uncertain. Arabs have less access to the Internet than Iranians, but have competing TV news channels, al Jazeera and al Arabiya, which broadcast across the region, and challenge the media monopoly of local Arab governments. They have a vast and unsettled population of young men, with excess testosterone and a tendency to riot. Some 60%, and rising, of the Arab world is under 30, compared with a declining 35% in Europe and barely more than that in America.

Obama’s policy is morally rootless. He offers ‘respect’ to those who stone adulterers and chop the hands off thieves. It would be better to respect the dignity of the Arab peoples than to respect their governments. But maybe, by denying those governments the claim that their countries are victims of outside aggression, he is creating the environment for reform. Reagan did.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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