The Good Dictators
Published on Monday, April 29, 2002 in the Guardian of London
The Good Dictators
by Gary Younge
 
After the US encouraged the secession of Panama from Colombia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt suffered a qualm of conscience. Having promised the new state American military protection to secure a good price for the construction and future ownership of the Panama Canal, Roosevelt asked his attorney general, Philander Knox, to articulate a principled defense for his actions. "Oh, Mr President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality."

Almost a century later, one wonders whether President Bush has the same qualms and what the response around his cabinet table would be if he did. Two weeks ago, the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was ousted in a coup that lasted only 48 hours. Where a populist president once stood, the head of a private business lobby briefly became head of state.

No conclusive evidence has yet emerged to suggest that the US supported the botched overthrow. But it is clear that it knew it was going to happen and did nothing to stop it. Throughout the ordeal America, which has roamed the globe since September 11 declaring its determination to protect "democracy and civilization" at the barrel of a gun, lost its tongue. When the coup crumbled, Chavez emerged not to warm support but a stern warning from Bush that he "hoped Chavez had learned his lesson".

The lesson is clear, if double-edged. America supports democracy when democracy supports America. But when there is no democracy, dictatorships will do just as well - and at times even better. The sticking point is not whether citizens of all nations have the right to choose their leaders, but whether leaders, freely elected or not, of any nation have the right to choose a course which runs against whatever the US perceives its interests to be at a given moment.

But America does not always get what it wants. While its superior economic and military might stacks the odds in its favor, it does not predetermine victory in every circumstance, be it in the presidential palace of Caracas or the caves of Tora Bora.

Chavez did not support America. He did not go out of his way to attack it either. But he had close ties with Cuba, made overtures to Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadafy, criticized the bombing of Afghanistan, taxed the rich and had begun a thoroughgoing redistribution of land in a country where more than 80% live in poverty. Even though his popularity had plummeted, this was the program on which Chavez was elected. He was a shining example of a route that Zimbabwe might have taken had Robert Mugabe decided to depend on popular support rather than descend into autocratic megalomania. Sadly, the story of the Venezuelan coup is a shining example of just how much scope there is for a small country to make radical change in the interests of its people through democratic means.

Those who eschew the popular will and embrace America receive very different treatment. Take Pakistan. Three years ago General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup and became an international pariah. Last September he redeemed himself by supporting the war on Afghanistan. Since then aid has poured in, sanctions have been scrapped and debt has been rescheduled. On Thursday he further ingratiated himself by giving the US military permission to follow al-Qaida into Pakistan territory.

Elections were scheduled for this October, after which a newly elected national parliament and provincial assemblies would elect a president. Not any more. Voting will still take place but the presidency will not be up for grabs. Instead, tomorrow there will be a referendum on whether Musharraf should remain president for another five years. To ensure victory, political parties have been banned from holding rallies, he has refused the right of former, elected and currently exiled premiers to return and oppose the referendum, and beaten up journalists and opponents. Musharraf's will be the only name on the ballot.

Washington's foreign policy not only tolerates this kind of behavior; at times it positively depends on it. It is thanks to the monarchs and dictators of the Arab world that widespread anger over recent events in the Middle East have not erupted into popular and violent disturbances. The last thing America needs now is elections in a country like Saudi Arabia, let alone Jordan or Syria.

To point this out is no more anti-American than it was anti-British to argue against the empire. Those who bandy about accusations of knee-jerk anti-Americanism might check their own reflexes rather than offering uncritical support to the US at this most critical time. "'Our country is strong,' we are told again and again," wrote the American intellectual Susan Sontag after September 11. "I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be."

The US would not be able to conduct this agenda without the craven support of most of the rest of the developed world, Britain being key. The primary concern is not so much that America's current foreign policy is informed by self-interest - that is true of most countries - but that its interests appear to be at odds with almost every other nation and it is unencumbered by any coherent strategy. In just over a year, it has angered Europe with its steel tariffs, the Arab world over Israel and Afghanistan, much of South America with alleged complicity in Venezuela and indifference to the plight of Argentina, and just about everybody with its rejection of Kyoto.

White House attempts to wrap up this blunderbuss approach in moral imperatives would be laughable if the consequences were not so dire. Bush talks of bolstering "the dignity and value of every individual": tell that to the people of Jenin. The secretary of state, Colin Powell, offers more clarity which ultimately reveals even greater contradiction. "Over the past year, the broader tapestry of our foreign policy has become clear," he says. "It is to encourage the spread of democracy and market economies." This assertion must baffle steel workers in Europe and democrats in Islamabad.

As America trains its sights on Iraq we will hear much of how the latter has flouted resolutions from the UN - a body the US has dispensed with whenever convenient. We will hear tales of Saddam's demagogy, vicious treatment of the Kurds and ostentation in a land where many starve. Many, if not most, will be true. All will be irrelevant to American intentions.

America is no more interested in establishing democracy in Iraq than it is in preserving it in Venezuela. The crucial factors, in both cases, are that they are oil-rich, non-compliant states. Its talk of democracy and human rights, in this context, is yet more moral camouflage for yet another immoral war.

Lewis Libby, a senior adviser to the US defense secretary, says: "There is no basis in Iraq's past behavior to have confidence in good faith efforts on their part to change their behavior" Almost a century after the secession of Panama, the same can still be said of America.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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