Cheers for freedom
On your soil;
As long as we
Still get your oil.

It’s a tricky time to be secretary of state. You have to praise democracy out one side of your mouth while promoting “stability” out the other. You praise democracy because that’s what the United States does. Your promote stability because that’s what our policymakers really want.

Democracy certainly sounds nice, especially here at home. Democracy means letting people choose their own government. But that’s risky. People in other countries, being fickle human beings, may not choose to do what Washington wants. This gets to be awkward, and it explains why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks highly of democracy in the abstract but quickly loses enthusiasm as the reality approaches.

“Stability” sounds OK too, at least in the stable old U.S. of A. In more volatile lands, say Egypt or Yemen, it smells of dictatorship. This should not come as a surprise, because that’s exactly what it’s supposed to smell like. When Clinton called for stability in Egypt, what she really meant was, “OK, back off with the protests already, and we’ll get Mubarak to lighten up a little. We realize that your society is a bit autocratic and corrupt, but it’s important to us to have a friend running your country who will play nice with Israel.”

For oil-producing countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the message is slightly altered: “We will try to bribe your ruler to take better care of your needs while not interfering with our own God-given right to control your oil.”

Then in Yemen, the “stability” refrain goes, “We realize that President Saleh has a stern demeanor. Nonetheless, we need him to protect both Saudi Arabia and the United States from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that lurk in your desert. Sorry, but it’s nothing personal.” This message has been no better received than the others.

While understandably desired by the protesters, democracy may actually not be good for their own health. Suppose a majority turned out to be Islamist and elected a government that was unfriendly to Israel, or heaven forbid, us. This could lead to conflict and someone could get hurt.

Thus, the United States wasn’t eager to see Mubarak go. Yes, we may be able to bribe the army, but you never know. Democracy may actually win. And then? What if Egypt’s revolutionary fever infects Saudi Arabia? Would “our” oil be OK?

In oil-rich Libya, however, “democracy” gets a hearing at last. Muammar Gaddafi is a dictator, but worse, he’s not OUR dictator. Bad enough he’s buddies with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez–but suppose next he becomes buddies with China? Europe, which buys most of Libya’s oil, is also nervous. France uncharacteristically dropped the first bomb. No “stability” wanted here, thank you. It’s time for “democracy.” Or at least a new dictator.

Maybe stability isn’t right for Libya. But an armada of former lawmakers, now roaming Washington’s corridors as lobbyists for Israel, the oil companies, and sundry autocrats, is advocating stability for most of those other dictatorships. Each former colleague warns current members of the dangers democracy could bring to the Middle East.

This lobbying, alongside the dictators’ truncheons and tear gas, stands in the way of any serious international support for freedom and justice. “Stability Uber Alles!”

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. https://otherwords.org