By Stephen Gowans
It started off promisingly enough. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Scott Shane wondered why “the drama unfolding in Cairo” seems “so familiar” if “the United States, as so many presidents have said in so many speeches [is] the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy.”
Shane never arrived at the obvious explanation: that the United States isn’t the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy. But he came close.
He touched on some of the more egregious examples of Washington’s dictator-backing: Batista in Cuba; Mahammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran; Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (whose “adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process” then US vice president George H. W. Bush conjured out of a vacuum and then shamelessly praised.)
“The list could be extended,” Shane admitted, to “at least a couple of dozen despots” since World War II alone.
Rarely does the New York Times acknowledge that the United States has a long record of backing dictators, all right-wing and not a few fascist (though the Times brushed over the political character of the dictatorships the US favors.) On the contrary, the newspaper’s accustomed practice is to reinforce what “so many presidents have said in so many speeches”: that the country’s foreign policy is guided by the core US value of spreading democracy.
The reason may be that there is no way the United States can plausibly continue to back its three-decade-long paladin in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak – and the continuation of Mubarak’s regime by his heir apparent Omar Suleiman – and still invoke pro-democracy rhetoric to justify its support (though secretary of state Hilary Clinton, who talks of Suleiman overseeing a transition to democracy, is game to try.)
With US hypocrisy laid bare, the follow-the-flag New York Times has had to make a concession – to truth, at least a partial one.
What Shane concedes is that the United States has values and interests, and that circumstances often conspire to keep the two from intersecting. But that’s as far as he’ll go. Admitting that the United States has “interests” which don’t always align with its “values” comes dangerously close to the truth. But if you follow what Shane has acknowledged to its limit, and ask a key question, dangerously close becomes dangerously there.
Go where Shane fears to tread. US values and interests sometimes conflict. Okay, fine. But when they do – and here are the dots Shane fails to connect — US values take a back seat. In other words, what’s important in US foreign policy are not the country’s values, but its interests.
Okay, but what are its interests? R. Palme Dutt once observed that the idea that countries have interests in other countries was an abomination of geography and democracy. How could the United States have interests in Egypt? Do Egyptians have interests in the United States, to be enforced by shipping billions of dollars to a dictator to hold the interests of US citizens in check, subordinate to their own? If so Americans would surely call this imperialism, rather than failure of values and interests to align. If Egyptians said that they really valued democracy, but that other considerations were senior, Americans would say that Egypt’s commitment to democracy was rhetorical. It’s the other considerations that really matter.
According to Shane, Mubarak has served US interests as “a staunch ally against Soviet expansionism,” by maintaining “a critical peace with Israel,” as “a bulwark against Islamic radicalism” and in promoting “a trade- and tourist-friendly Egypt.” Shane’s New York Times colleague Mark Landler sums it up this way: Mubarak’s regime protects US strategic and commercial interests.
Commercial interests are, of course, business interests, and more specifically, big business interests. They aren’t directly the interests of the bulk of US citizens, nor in many cases do they represent their indirect interests either. An investment by US investors in an existing Egyptian business profits the investors, not other US citizens. A call center set up by a US firm in Egypt to take advantage of low-wage labor benefits the US firm’s wealthy shareholders – many of whom are not even US citizens — while putting downward pressure on US wages and exporting jobs abroad.
In other words, the business interests that Mubarak and other US-backed autocrats protect on behalf of the United States are not the interests of most US citizens, but of an upper stratum of investors, bankers and wealthy shareholders whose sole loyalty is to their bottom lines. The interests of average Americans hardly matter. Indeed, in many cases, their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the investors and shareholders US foreign policy represents (as in the export of jobs).
And who’s footing the bill for the billions of dollars in military aid Mubarak’s regime receives? Given the low corporate tax policies the US government pursues, and the corporations’ skill at minimizing the taxes they pay, the answer is average Americans, not the direct beneficiaries of US foreign policy.
It’s worse. While it might seem that big business interests aren’t the only interests guiding US foreign policy – after all, there are strategic interests too — strategic interests really boil down to the interests of big business. US foreign policy makers weren’t opposed to what they called “Soviet expansionism” because they valued “democracy” but because they valued nearly limitless exploitation of labor, which expanding Soviet influence would have pared back. The problem with Islamic radicalism isn’t that it offends Western values (even if it does), but that it inspires regimes that place national interests above those of US oil companies. Arab peace with Israel is desirable because Israel is beholden to Washington to act on its behalf to prevent an Arab pan-nationalism that might see oil-rich countries balk at domination by US oil interests.
So what of US values? We’re supposed to believe that US policy-makers value liberal democracy, even if they’re willing to place profit-making interests first. But if big business interests win out over liberal democracy when the two collide, what Washington really values – if value is to have any meaning at all – is profit.
It’s like this: I say I value literature, but I always toss my books aside whenever someone turns on the TV. And I never miss an episode of Cribs. So, where do my values really lie?
The significance of this might seem all the greater if it is realized that none of this is bounded by foreign policy. Embracing liberal democracy where it doesn’t conflict with the naked pursuit of profit applies equally in the domestic sphere as well. The readiness of US policy-makers to trash civil liberties in the Red Scare years following the Bolshevik Revolution — when capitalists cowered at the thought of socialist revolution spreading around the world (with little justification it turned out) — attests to this. Civil and political liberties also took a beating later on when fears of spreading Soviet influence also seemed to threaten the capitalist system and the wealth and position of those at the top of it.
As for the democracy Washington is prepared to embrace, it looks good on paper, but comes up short in practice. Washington-friendly democracy is not democracy in its original sense as the rule of a previously oppressed class (the rabble), but democracy of the currently dominant class, the capitalist rich. True, democracy of the kind cabinet secretaries and editorial writers rhapsodize about appears to provide equal opportunity to all to influence the political process, but the reality is that the wealthy use their money to dominate the process through lobbying, funding of political parties and candidates, ownership of the media and placement of their representatives in key positions in the state.
How many cabinet secretaries in Obama’s administration held top corporate jobs and will return to them when their sojourn in Washington ends, replaced by other corporate luminaries who travel in the same circles, sit on the same boards of directors, and whose children go to the same schools and intermarry? The art of politics in capitalist democracy, to paraphrase a key Labour politician of the past, is to enable the wealthy to persuade the rest of us to use our votes to keep the wealthy in power.
Democracy, then, is not a core US value – and it is not, on two counts. First, the democracy Washington embraces isn’t democracy in any substantial sense, but is more aptly termed a plutocracy with democratic trappings. Second, the real core US value is profits. Even Washington’s preferred democracy of the rich gets pushed aside when, for whatever reasons, big business interests cannot be accommodated adequately — that is, whenever real expressions of democracy threaten to break through the restraints the system provides to hold it in check.