On April 23, 2004, President George W. Bush waived most economic sanctions on Libya. His press secretary announced that the United States would open a liaison office in Tripoli, a major step on the road to reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations. Bush’s waiver continues the rapprochement that began on December 19, 2003, with the announcement that Libyan dictator Muammar Khaddafi had suspended his extensive nuclear-weapons programs and would permit independent inspections.
Khaddafi’s decision to quit investing his nation’s oil wealth in a nuclear-weapons program is a victory for the Bush administration’s no-nonsense policy against proliferation. But, the victory may be Pyrrhic if carrots outpace sticks, and if U.S. policy does not hold Khaddafi to his commitments.
On March 12, 2004, in the East Room of the White House, Bush reaffirmed U.S. commitment to democracy in foreign policy. “We stand with courageous reformers,” the president said. “Earlier today, the Libyan government released Fathi El-Jahmi. He’s a local government official who was imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy. It’s an encouraging step toward reform in Libya. You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things.” The president’s words were bold and principled. Unfortunately, Khaddafi’s response was not.
Wall Street Journal columnist Claudia Rosett has followed El-Jahmi’s case. One week after Bush invoked El-Jahmi as a sign of Libyan progress, Khaddafi’s security agents surrounded his house. They cut his telephone line. On March 24, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns visited the Libyan dictator. According to the Libyan dissident community, Burns asked Libyan officials permission to visit El-Jahmi and was denied. Rather than stand up for principle and the word of President Bush, Burns agreed to not interact with ordinary Libyans. Locals would later see Burns on Libyan state television implicitly endorsing an unelected leader who has dominated Libyan politics longer than Saddam Hussein’s Baath party dominated Iraq. Two days after Burns left Libya, El-Jahmi disappeared. U.S. government silence is deafening. The signal is clear: Washington will not hold dictators accountable. If El-Jahmi’s release had been a sign of Khaddafi’s transformation, then his disappearance is a sign that Khaddafi has not changed after all. And he has not. Libyans continue to disappear for speaking out for democracy and reform. Khaddafi continues to finance Islamist terrorists from the Philippines to Senegal.
The problem is not limited to U.S. policy toward Libya. On January 29, 2002, Bush explained how “an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” Yet, just one year later, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage labeled Iran a democracy.
Iran is no democracy. The Islamic Republic has imprisoned 75-year-old journalist Siamak Pourzand for more than a year. His crime was speaking out for democracy. He was initially placed in solitary confinement and tortured, then paraded before state television to confess to imaginary crimes. Earlier this month, Pourzand had a heart attack and slipped into a coma. I spoke last week with his daughter. He is chained to a bed in Tehran’s Modarres Hospital. His weight has dropped to 55 kilograms. The Islamic Republic continues to deprive him of essential medical care. As much as European Union officials and Armitage speak of progress and reform in Iran, democracies do not torture 75-year-old men. If Pourzand awakes from his coma, he will not see U.S. diplomats holding Tehran accountable for his health and well-being. Rather, Pourzand will see Iranian news reports of former and current members of the U.S. National Security Council greeting figures like Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Rather than hear about how the U.S. National Security Council has been working tirelessly for his release, Pourzand will hear Iranian journalists describe how the State Department seeks to loosen restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for Iranian assistance in reining in Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a man subsidized by a close associate of the Iranian Supreme Leader.
Foggy Bottom has also dropped the ball in regard to Palestinian democracy. On June 24, 2002, Bush declared, “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts.” Rather than keep the word of our president, career diplomats prefer instead to strengthen Yassar Arafat’s dictatorship. The New York Sun’s Eli Lake broke the story of how, on February 13, 2004, Issam Abu Issa, the former chairman of the Palestine International Bank, arrived in the U.S. to testify about Arafat’s corruption before members of the House Financial Services Committee. Abu Issa never testified. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority told members of the State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs that Abu Issa, and outspoken democrat, was secretly a terrorist financier. Foggy Bottom passed along Arafat’s information uncritically to the Department of Homeland Security which promptly deported the prominent banker and outspoken reformer. Foreign Service officers should be fired for choosing to do a dictator’s dirty work rather than upholding presidential policy. Two weeks later, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher promised to look into the matter. Two months have now passed. Middle Eastern democrats still await Boucher’s answer. Apparently, it is acceptable for the assistant secretary of state to shake hands with a man responsible for ordering the murder of Americans, but Libyan dissidents and Palestinian whistleblowers do not deserve equal courtesy.
Career diplomats now undercut democracy in Iraq. On April 23, L. Paul Bremer delivered a speech in which he embraced former Iraqi army officers and senior Baathists. He promised to rehire teachers fired not for simple Baath-party membership, but rather for active service in the highest levels of Saddam’s party, an organization whose ideology is based on a combination of Italian Fascism and the Nazi ethnic chauvinism. Iraqis fear the Coalition will now terminate non-Baathist schoolteachers hired to replace the high-ranking Baathists. Simultaneously, senior State Department officials tell journalists that the U.S. may exclude Governing Council members who oppose re-Baathification from Iraq’s interim government. U.S. policy should support and not shun democrats.
On the first anniversary of the start of military action to liberate Iraq, Bush declared, “We have set out to encourage reform and democracy in the greater Middle East as the alternatives to fanaticism, resentment, and terror.” Bush may have moral clarity, but lofty words lose their when not translated into policy. Soviet dissidents recount how Ronald Reagan’s acknowledgement of their plight emboldened them, demoralized their captors, and weakened dictatorships from Moscow to Warsaw to Prague. Unfortunately, failure to implement presidential policy undermines U.S. moral leadership. It is time to support Middle Eastern democrats rather than fawn over dictators. We should start by standing up for Fathi El-Jahmi, Siamak Pourzand, and Issam Abu Issa.
–Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.