Obama's Middle East Plans: Democracy, Freedom (and Trade Liberalisation)


Graham Bell, 20 May 2011

Categories: Democracy | Egypt | Middle East | USA | Arab Spring |


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At the recent 25th anniversary of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) (May 11th, 2011) in the US, Noam Chomsky summarised one aspect of the US diplomatic attitude with the following quote:

When there's a favoured dictator and he's getting into trouble, support him as long as possible, full support as long as possible. When it becomes impossible to support him—like, say, maybe the army turns against him, business class turns against him—then send him off somewhere, issue ringing declarations about your love of democracy, and then try to restore the old regime, maybe with new names.

Yesterday, 19th May, President Barack Obama made a speech on democratic reform in the Middle East. If we apply the quote above, this speech fits as one step in the process, after the following steps taken during the ousting of Mubarak, during which (1) they called for calm, (2) proposed Omar Suleiman as a suitable replacement, and (3) then called for Mubarak to leave. Indeed, Obama uses the term “stepped aside” to describe the departures of Mubarak and Ben Ali, as though they saw the need for reform and stood down as an act of altruism.

Now, of course, Obama is certainly making “ringing declarations” about his love of democracy when he says “It will be the policy of the United States… to support democracy”. Worryingly, America’s support for democracy includes not only “financial stability” but “integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy”. These comments should cause alarm when we consider that opening Latin America up to “competitive markets” was how America essentially controlled the region through neoliberal economics. Many countries in Latin America have now rejected this financial support after reaching the conclusion that the borrower usually ended up financially crippled, and with less sovereignty than they should have.

Walter Armbrust, a lecturer at Oxford University, has described the Egypt uprising as a “Revolution against Neoliberalism”, stating that Mubarak’s Egypt is “a quintessential neoliberal state”. If democracy is to function in Egypt and Tunisia, it is important that the people of the region decide upon the economic model for themselves.

One might wonder (a) why the US has waited until now, after decades of oppression, to promote democratic reform in the Middle East, (b) why the US is seemingly not concerned with democratic reform in other dictatorships around the world, and (c) why the US can lend such large amounts of money during a period of austerity at home. The answer to all of these is more than likely that they need economic control of the area. William Hague gave a similar speech on 5th May of this year, calling for a “new [trade] partnership” between the EU and the Middle East. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Show, Oliver Miles, former ambassador to Libya, asserted that from Hague’s proposals, “Europe stands to gain, but the Arab states don’t stand to gain very much” (listen to the audio clip at the bottom of this article).

The Obama speech goes on to condemn Iran but not Bahrain, who he says “have a legitimate interest in the rule of law”. The mention of Iran of trying to “take advantage of the turmoil there”, during a speech about US plans for the Middle East (and while NATO do just that in Libya), highlights the hypocrisy of the US position.

News of this speech in the UK was of course portrayed for the most part positively and uncritically. The analysis on the BBC webstie ran under the headline “Barack Obama presses for Middle East reform”, while the Guardian headlined with “Barack Obama throws full US support behind Middle East uprisings”. A more pragmatic assessment of the speech comes from Robert Fisk, who questions whether the US need to, or have the right to, play a role in the post-revolution Middle East.

Despite all this “good news” and the illusion that the west would like to lend support to the Middle East, we should remember that the uprisings opposed in many ways the very system imposed upon these countries by the west. Yvette Carnell, political blogger at the Atlanta Post, wrote at the start of the Egyptian uprising that “the U.S. has the obligation to allow sovereign nations to plot their own course to self-governance, unhindered by coercion from the West”.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed”. However it is dressed up, the broader priority of the US is certainly not to give “freedom” or “democracy” to the Middle East. What Obama’s speech suggests is that US economic foreign policy towards the Middle East is largely unchanged. We should not be surprised if we see the oppressed continuing to demand freedom for years to come.


Listen to the BBC Radio 4 Interview with Oliver Miles from 5th May 2011, as he gives his comments on William Hague's proposals for the Middle East:

Categories in which this article appears: Democracy | Egypt | Middle East | USA | Arab Spring |

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