President Obama has belatedly come out in favor of “universal values” and called for democratic elections in Egypt. Many Egyptians see his newfound interest in their freedom hypocritical given his silence for more than two years while supporting the Mubarak regime. The true test of his policy will not be a transition in Egypt, however, it will be whether the president is prepared to apply these standards elsewhere in the Middle East before crises emerge.
American policy has long granted a “democracy exception” to pro-American Arab autocracies. Besides Egypt, perhaps the most egregious example of ignoring the “universal values” Americans hold dear is U.S. support for Saudi Arabia.
The relationship began a few years after Ibn Saud established his kingdom and American companies discovered oil. Since that time, the Saudi government has led an Arab lobby comprised oil companies and defense contractors, as well as current and former diplomats who believe preserving access to Saudi oil is America’s primary interest in the Middle East and that keeping the Saudis happy is vital to protecting that interest.
This lobby has convinced presidents from Roosevelt to Obama to ignore abuses by the regime that include not only the mistreatment of Saudi citizens but discriminatory practices against American Jews and Christians.
The most recent State Department report on human rights documented the following Saudi abuses:
“no right to change the government peacefully; disappearances; torture and physical abuse; poor prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; denial of public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system; political prisoners; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and severe restrictions on religious freedom; and corruption and lack of government transparency. Violence against women, violations of the rights of children, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity were common.”
America grants the Saudis a “democracy exception” out of fear that a different regime would be worse. That danger is also present in Egypt where it is very possible an Iranian-style Islamist regime could take over from Mubarak if elections are held and yet the president calls for free and fair elections. Why should our policy be different toward Saudi Arabia?
The last president to make human rights a priority in foreign policy was Jimmy Carter, who not only looked the other way at Saudi abuses during his presidency, but became one of the Saudis’ leading apologists after leaving office. Not surprisingly, his Carter Center has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in donations from the Saudis. These “investments” by the Saudis in presidents and former presidents may also help explain the bipartisan record of hypocrisy in harping on the abuses of other countries while ignoring those of the Saudis.
The only president to stand up to the Saudis was John Kennedy who, nearly a century after the U.S. civil war, insisted that they abolish slavery. And the Saudis complied, proving that a determined president could influence the kingdom to give up practices that they may insist are part of their culture or are none of our business.
By contrast, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking for the president, congratulated the Saudis on their National Day for, among other things, “promoting moderation and tolerance.”
In his first year, President Obama tried to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world in a brilliant speech from Cairo expressing his respect for Islam and his intent to break with past policies that created enmity in the region. That outreach effort failed, in part, because he did not recognize that by speaking from the Egyptian capital he was tacitly supporting the Mubarak regime and sending the message that he was no different from his predecessors who backed autocrats so long as they were pro-American.
If he is to change his image in the region as a hypocrite, he will have to demand that the Saudis and other totalitarian Arab regimes -- besides Egypt -- respect “universal values” and democratize.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst whose latest book is "The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East" (HarperCollins Publishers)