By Andrew M. Mwenda
How U S uses the language of freedom and human rights to undermine the cause of democracy in other countries
Almost a month ago, Fareed Zakaria hosted Barack Obama on his CNN show, GPS. Zakaria asked the U.S. president why America supports dictatorships like the ones in Saudi Arabia and Jordan when it is supposed to promote democracy around the world. Obama said he has to deal with the world as it is, not as he would wish it to be. America needs (and has) allies but some of them do not share its values. Yet he has to work with them to promote America’s interests. He said he cannot force these allies to adopt American values but he can (and does) try to influence them to reform through quiet diplomacy.
This is of course common sense. Yet Washington harshly criticizes many governments- Bolivia, Iran, China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Russia, etc -for being authoritarian. It finances efforts “to promote democracy” in them.
America finances human rights groups, political parties,and uses local media and its own media to seek to undermine the authority of these governments.This way it turns these “institutions of democracy”into Fifth Columnists for its imperial ambitions.
This forces and even justifies these governments into cracking down on these supposed democratic institutions. In some countries; such as Libya andIraq, America has directly invaded or bombed them;and in others like Syria and Nicaragua it has sponsored terrorist organisations in order to democratize them at gunpoint.
Therefore, for America, accusations of dictatorship and human rights abuses are not aimed at creating democracy. Rather they are employed as a strategy to destabilise governments that disagree with Washington. The facts adduced may not be false (even though many times they are exaggerated). Rather the aim is to find internal weaknesses and amplify them as an arsenal to promote an American agenda. And quite often this agenda is antithetical to democratic aims.
Yet many of the abuses America accuses these countries of committing are common in the USA as well. For example, there are daily and arbitrary killings of black males by local police. Across America, scores of young black males are sent to jail daily in mass incarceration programs that has made the USA possess the largest prison population in the world. There is torture of prisoners as happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. There is the constant killing of innocents in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan by unmanned drones in an unending “war on terror”. And of course the corruption of Wall Street aided by Washington etc. Should other nations invade America to end these abuses?
Therefore, even if one accepted liberal democracy as a neutral universal value desired by every person (which is a dubious and even anti-democratic position to espouse), still it is reasonable to argue that America has debased it and undermined its cause. This way America is not very different from Al Qaeda and ISIL. Of course as normative values, America’s liberal democracy agenda is diametrically opposed to ISIL’s Islamist ambitions. But as positive theories, they are alike. One seeks to impose liberal democracy everywhere regardless of circumstances; the other seeks to impose Islam on the whole world. Both employ terrorism to promote their agendas. One uses the power of its military to arbitrarily bomb opponents into submission; the other (lacking such military power) employs “weapons of the weak” by attacking soft targets like civilians. But the goal is the same: that the world should be dominated by one ideology.
The abuse of democracy to promote America’s imperial interests has been detrimental to democracy. It is easier to undermine a democratic government especially when the one seeking to do so is an economically rich and militarily powerful nation armed with powerful media and a dominant ideology. The openness of a democratic system creates opportunities for America to use its financial and ideological tools to fund political parties, “civil society” organisations and media that advance U.S. interests and undermine local authority.
Imagine America wants to exploit your oil at basement prices to enrich its own corporate oligarchs. It has to ally with powerful local elites – whether religious (as in Saudi Arabia), traditional (as in the Gulf states) or modern/secular (as in Egypt). But assuming a democratic government wants to negotiate better terms. This would conflict with American interests. America would retaliate by undermining such a government by creating and financing opposition parties, hostile “civil society”and mass media.
In such circumstances, the most effective way to defend the sovereignty of a nation threatened by America is to suppress these supposedly democratic institutions. This is how American interests undermined the evolution of democratic governments in Latin America for many years. It is also what is happening in Russia under Vladimir Putin, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela,etc.
This is best illustrated by the August-September 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs journal. It has three former CIA operatives explaining how America undermined the democratically elected governments of Iran (1954), Congo (1960) and Chile (1974) leading to their collapse. In all of them, the CIA used local opposition parties, mass media, and civil society organisations to spread malicious propaganda, provoke riots, and protests that precipitated military coups. The governments in Cuba, the Soviet Union, China and North Korea survived in large part because they successfully suppressed those structures that would have created vents for American machinations.
In many cases America has opposed the spread of democracy while preaching it – in order to mask her imperial designs. Instead, democratic movements in many countries like Philippines, Chile, Iran, Bolivia, etc. emerged in opposition to American aims. But once in power, these movements faced threats from America for being pro their own people and found themselves forced to crack down on many seeming institutions of democracy because these provided the CIA with infrastructure to undermine them.
I am not saying that when American leaders and diplomats are exhorting other countries to be democratic they are lying. Actually, many American journalists, activists, and diplomats who keep sloganeering democracy are sincere. In fact if they were lying they would not be effective. Rather, they have internalised their nation’s delusions and take them as reality. The most effective way to promote your own lie is to first believe it as true. The worst victim of one’s own lie is oneself. Robert Triver’s book, The Folly of Fools; the Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception, illustrates this point best.