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Mideast 'Friends' Give U.S. Pains

This column for The American Prospect was written by Matthew Yglesias.
In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush put to rest rumors of a realpolitik retrenchment in his second term by recommitting the United States to the spread of liberty around the world in the strongest terms since his early 2003 address to the National Endowment for Democracy. As is typically the case with inaugural speeches, it was heavy on lofty sentiment but light on policy details. Fortunately, his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, a woman known to have his ear, was able to go into more detail during her confirmation hearings that same week.

"The world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls the 'town-square test,'" she told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. "If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society." As Israel's minister for diaspora and Jerusalem affairs, Sharansky is not an extraordinarily influential government official. His background as an anti-Soviet dissident, however, gives him a certain global fame and importance beyond his formal authority. And no less a figure than the president of the United States has reportedly been impressed by his recent book, The Case for Democracy, which Bush has recommended to several visitors.

In December, Ali Hatar strode into the metaphorical town square in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and delivered his lecture "Why We Boycott America." For his trouble, Hatar got arrested under Section 191 of the Jordanian penal code for slander of government officials. Jordan, in other words, flunked the town-square test.

Jordan is perhaps America's closest ally in the Arab world. Lacking in oil reserves or a large military, it is, moreover, extraordinarily dependent on the United States for aid, military defense, and for a special trade agreement we reached with the Jordanian government to reward then-King Hussein's helpful diplomatic activity during the period of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Jordanian state's decision to make peace with Israel and, more broadly, its generally pro-American foreign policy is not widely admired by Jordan's population. Indeed, the most recent Pew survey indicated that only 5 percent of Jordanians have a favorable view of the United States. And Jordanians have other complaints: persistently poor economic performance and persistent tensions between descendant's of Jordan's large Palestinian-born population and those whose families originated east of the Jordan River.

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These latter problems are not, of course, strictly the fault of the United States. We would very much like for Jordan to be more prosperous, all else being equal. Nevertheless, we are blamed for them. Jordanians understand that their government lacks valuable natural resources. They understand that this means it finds external support extremely helpful in bolstering its grip on power. They also understand that unlike in the case of, say, Saudi Arabia, the United States does not get any tangible goods of value in exchange for its support of the Jordanian government. Instead, we get an ally among the Arab states, a government that will cooperate with our initiatives in Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, etc. They understand, in other words, that the Hashemite regime's ability to survive is intimately linked to its willingness to pursue an unpopular pro-American regional policy.

Naturally enough, Jordanians are less than thrilled by this situation, so now and again they venture into the town square to complain. And then they get arrested. The government of the United States, newly recommitted to freedom, had nothing whatsoever to say about this until an intrepid White House reporter asked the president about it on January 26. Bush punted, pleading ignorance of the facts and noting that "His Majesty is making progress" toward democracy. In fact, His Majesty is doing no such thing. Recent years have seen cosmetic proposals put forward while, in practice, Jordan moves backward -- gerrymandering an unrepresentative but compliant parliament; cracking down on the press, professional associations, and other civil-society groups; restricting public assembly; and relying on ad hoc decrees promulgated while the parliament is out of session. There's no indication that Bush decided to familiarize himself with the facts of the case -- or even with the general political situation in Jordan -- as neither he nor any of his subordinates has mentioned it since. Nor has he been asked about it again.

The trouble here is not especially that the president's policies are hypocritical, or at odds with his rhetoric. The rhetorical dissonance makes things worse, but the basic problem is that the policy is a bad one. Paradoxically, it is anti-American speakers in pro-American countries whose liberty is crucial to American security. Ali Hatar and others should be free to speak their minds and, if they desire, to elect a government that is less charitable toward the United States. This might be inconvenient. It is, however, far preferable to the alternative trajectory, which is well known to us from observing the biographies of the intellectual and organizational leaders of al Qaeda and related movements. Down this other path, Arabs angered by their governments' policies realize that in order to change the policies, they must change the government. By force. But they can't overpower local governments backed by the many resources of the United States. So they decide to take the fight straight to the far enemy -- us.

Anti-American dictatorships, the ones Bush is willing to actually criticize and that Rice has labeled "outposts of tyranny," don't give us much trouble in this regard. The governments of Syria and Iran have both been more willing to cooperate with us against al Qaeda than we've been willing to cooperate with them. These governments' bad policies don't spawn hatred and resentment of America, because everyone knows we're not propping them up. And, perhaps most important of all, in the wake of the Iraq War, there isn't really anything we can do about these countries' internal politics except wait patiently and hope for the best. It's our friends that give us trouble, and it's our friends that we might be able to do something about. A president who understood the implications of his own words could see that.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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