Thursday, February 17, 2011

Let's Get Over "Stability"

Listening to analysts and news people discuss the uprisings across the Muslim World, you hear the word "stability" come up a lot. As in, "It is in the United States' interest that there be stability in the Middle East." Or, "Now that Mubarak has stepped down, the priority for Egypt should be a return to stability."

I call poppycock on this. The focus on stability comes from an imperial mindset in the US foreign policy community. If you're the one holding the gun and standing on a pile of treasure, you want everyone else to just simmer down and not make any sudden movements. This has basically been the US position in regard to the various uprisings.

On Egypt, where Mubarak was a US-friendly dictator, the message at first was that Mubarak is not a dictator, the government of Egypt is stable, the government should pursue "reforms," blah blah blah. Only when it became clear that the protesters in Tahrir had the momentum did the tune begin to change.

On Bahrain, where King Hamad is a staunch US ally and where the US Fifth Fleet is based, there is either the normal language about respect for human rights or there is silence. Today, Bahrain's military began the crackdown on protesters. I'm guessing there will be only vague language about "restraint" from the US State Department.

But on Iran, where the theocracy opposes US power in the region, the US government has come down unequivocally on the side of the protesters.

The United States generally supports democratic movements abroad only when they are seen as boosting US power and/or undermining US enemies. I think the American people want a more principled foreign policy than that.

Some have argued that the US can't simply turn its back on allies like Mubarak and that we need to work closely with some dictators in order to fight terrorism. But let's not set up a false choice. That is after all what dictators like Mubarak said, "You either get me or you get terrorism and chaos in my place." We can and should ally with dictators in order to take on other evils, like Al Qaeda, but this temporary alliance should not be a general endorsement of the dictator. Let's work with dictators on A, B, and C, but also make it clear that we support the democratic forces in their countries and that when a democratic uprising comes, make no mistake that we stand with the people. Would that mean dictators like Mubarak would not work with us in the first place? If so, so be it. If any country can afford to take a principled stand that does not serve our own bottom line in the power equation, it's us.

So in this dream world I am imagining, the State Department would come out right now and say something like this:
"The United States of America stands squarely with the people who are protesting in Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt for democracy, human rights, and social justice. It is time for the authoritarian governments of these nations to step aside and for the people to take power through free and fair elections."
I mentioned above how the world looks through the eyes of the person who holds the gun and guards his treasure. For the person who can't get up out of the dirt because there's a boot on his throat, "stability" is the last thing he wants to hear about. "No justice, no peace," is more like it.


What Pale Blue Dot? said...

"Stability" is an offensive term that refers to, as you say, a colonialist mindset of keeping the natives happy enough to keep delivering you your profitable raw goods.

The Egyptian people (and plenty of others under oppressive governments) have worked for better, and they deserve better. They deserve to get whatever government they choose, and it is about time we sat down and let them.

You're quite correct in identifying the hypocrisy in our foreign policy. This should be corrected. We deserve a government that stands by the principles of our own protest. Unfortunately, that means that diplomacy may be complicated. But diplomacy is always complicated and we should be big enough to accept that.

Veronica said...

Well said. I am also getting sick of the hypocrisy around the idea of "democracy" -- like, we need to invade Iraq and Afghanistan to spread democracy, but when there are democratic uprisings from the people in Egypt and elsewhere, the rhetoric turns to "well, are they really READY for democracy?"

Elizabeth said...

Amen. To your post and the comments.

Mason said...

Dude, who cares about stability in the Mid East; We've got a union battle going on in the Midwest! That must be where you are.