The latest annual report of Human Rights Watch is as enlightening as ever, and provides invaluable insights into the strategy adopted by numerous countries, including staunch U.S. friends, to perpetuate dictatorships.
The game in town now seems to be to hold meaningless elections, and hence have the form of democracy without the function. The tactics to achieve this range from electoral fraud and media censorship to muzzling the opposition and targeting civil society groups. Several countries are playing this game, including buddies of the Bush Administration, from Pakistan and Egypt to Jordan and Ethiopia. And, not surprisingly, the Bush Administration has let them get away with it.
The United States under Bush has in the service of larger goals largely abandoned its commitment to democracy. President Bush’s recent trip through the Middle East is particularly illustrative, where he was much more intent on mobilizing autocratic Sunni regimes against Shiite Iran than pressing for democratic reform. The “war on terror” and the campaign against Iran are far more important than civil liberties or fundamental human rights for the Bush crowd.
“The U.S. government’s vigorous criticism of democratic shortcomings tends to be reserved mainly for long-time adversaries or pariahs, such as Syria, Burma or Cuba,” Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes. “Washington has largely exempted such allies as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, or Ethiopia, while its short-lived pressure on others, such as Egypt or Jordan, has waned. Indeed, the U.S. government is often a major funder of these allied governments despite their repressive practices. This obvious double standard makes the promotion of democracy seem like an act of political convenience rather than a commitment of principle, weakening the pressure for real democratic change.”
But perhaps that is not very surprising. The Bush Administration has not provided the best example for other countries, as the report points out.
“Human rights are a standard by which the record of the Bush administration is deeply troubling,” the report says. “Talk of human rights leads to Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons, waterboarding, rendition, military commissions, and the suspension of habeas corpus.”
As if this wasn’t enough, the United States under Bush has come up with a new tactic: renditioning suspects to countries that supposedly provide assurances against torture. Of course, these assurances most often mean nothing.
The result of all this is that the Bush Administration falls woefully short in terms of promoting democracy globally. As Human Rights Watch points out, the Iraq War has so badly tainted the image of the United States that even if the Bush folks genuinely tried to push for a more democratic world, their efforts would backfire.
“Much of the world today views any Washington-led campaign for democracy as a pretext for military invasion or regime change, if not also as a recipe for chaos,” the group says. “Dictators have learned that conjuring up visions of Iraq can be a useful way to blunt pressure to democratize. And governments that might have defended a more robust vision of democracy are reluctant to do so for fear of being seen as joining the Bush agenda.”
So, this is the outcome of the Bush Administration’s seven years in power: It has managed to tarnish the very concept of democracy. Congratulations are in order.