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The Political Economy of ‘Democracy Promotion’

14 January 2011

Where are the ‘democracy promoters’ on the Tunisian uprising?, asks Marc Lynch.  It’s a fair question:

Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia.  For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia.

More generally, Guardian journalist Brian Whitaker observes that “[c]onsidering the horrific violence meted out by the police over the weekend” Western media are giving the Ben Ali regime “an extraordinarily easy ride.”  I suspect that a comparison of mainstream coverage of the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran and the uprising in Tunisia would reveal a textbook example of the propaganda model in operation.

To be fair they’ve not been entirely absent.  In an op-ed today, Jackson Diehl offers a rare moment of candour: “The most imminent threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, however, is not war; it is revolution.”

Diehl is right to portray this as a “threat” to U.S. interests, once we translate doctrinal jargon into conventional English so that “U.S. interests” refers to the interests of the elite that overwhelmingly determines U.S. foreign policy.  The threat posed by the Tunisian dictatorship is that of contagion, which is why the Gulf dictatorships, who happen to be the U.S.’s closest allies in the region, are growing increasingly nervous.  Diehl frets that it “may be too late for the United States to head off a rolling social upheaval in the Middle East”, chastising the Obama administration for not preempting the threat of Arab democracy by pressuring allied dictators to enact controlled ‘reforms’.

For its part the U.S. government has been forthright in expressing its concern over “cyber . . . attacks on the Government of Tunisia’s websites”, adding: “[W]e’re concerned about government actions, but we’re also concerned about actions by the demonstrators, those who do not have peaceful intentions”.  No stirring rhetoric about freedom and tyranny here.

In his response to Diehl’s piece Lynch plays it coy, asking why Diehl portrays “the demonstrations against Ben Ali only [as] a ‘threat’ to U.S. interests and not an opportunity for the democratic change about which we hear so much?”  The New York Times gestures towards reality, arguing that

Not so long ago, the United States and other Western countries considered Mr. Ben Ali, and other secular tyrants, indispensable allies in the fight against extremists.  Washington now appears to recognize that Mr. Ben Ali’s repression and deafness to his people’s needs only add to the anger and make it more combustible.

Again, the criticism here seems to be that the Tunisian dictator has been incompetent, overzealous in his repression so as to unnecessarily provoke his subjects into revolt.  The NYT is correct to explain “Washington’s” (again, the usual translation is required) support for tyrannical regimes in the Middle East in the context of its hostility to “extremists”, once we understand that ‘extremist’ is a technical term referring to anyone who resists U.S. control.  The NYT understands this well enough.  After the CIA conspired with British intelligence to overthrow Iran’s elected Prime Minister after he nationalised the Iranian oil industry, its editorial board crowed:

Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.  It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of other Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders.

The general silence or apologetics from the ‘freedom warriors’ about the Tunisian uprising should not, then, come as a surprise.  It is of a piece with the history of U.S. ‘democracy promotion’ efforts, which have been characterised, as leading specialist on the topic Thomas Carothers observes, by a “strong line of continuity”: “[w]here democracy appears to fit in well with US security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy. . .  Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored.”

Similarly, we are soberly informed, U.S. ‘democracy promoters’ “did not want to control” Latin America, but equally they “did not want to allow developments to get out of control”.  That’s what the ‘threat’ of Tunisian democracy amounts to — a challenge to U.S. control — and that’s what explains the striking reluctance of the ‘democracy promoters’ to support it.


Jamie Stern-Weiner studies Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge.  He is a member of the New Left Project editorial team and maintains a personal blog at <heathlander.wordpress.com>.  This article was first published in the New Left Project blog on 14 January 2011 under a Creative Commons license.


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