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U.S. Foreign Policy: Lessons from the Arab Street

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The recent wave of demonstrations rippling through the Arab world is both heartening and depressing.

Heartening, because of the bravery and commitment demonstrated by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who faced an unknown fate when they decided to stand up and demand freedom from autocrats.

Depressing, because it reminds me of the disconnect between American values and American foreign policy.

I know there’s no wall to tear down, no single leader to implore as in the case of the Berlin Wall and the (former) Soviet Union.

And I know that some of these henchmen are our allies in the war against terrorism.

I also know, or at least I believe, that our great nation is at its best when we play to our strengths. It’s a lesson the Yankees learned when they moved Joba Chamberlain to the starting rotation (but that’s another column).

Our greatest strength is our belief that all people should be afforded basic human rights.

Despite our differences—race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, to name a few—the glue that keeps America together is our shared belief that individuals are entitled to freedom and justice. To make their own choices about who to marry and where to work. About where to pray (if at all), what to wear, and who to vote for.

We believe that you’re innocent until proven guilty. We enjoy free speech and a free press. We let women drive cars and men do housework. We are all equal.

What we lack is a foreign policy that’s consistent with the values that guide our domestic life. If ordinary citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere can stand up to intolerance and repression, so can the world’s only superpower.

Except we rarely do (unless you’re a communist). Until a riot overthrew the puppet master of Kyrgyzstan last April, we were more or less mum on some fairly serious human rights abuses because we wanted to rent a military base from him.

We refrain from public criticism of Pakistan because it’s viewed as an important ally in the war against terrorism. Never mind that its intelligence service, the ISI, is responsible for the holy terror known as the Taliban, or that Osama Bin Laden is roaming around Pakistani tribal areas with the rest of his crew. Or that Pakistani madrassas are churning out mini Bin Ladens faster than Rudy Giuliani can say 9/11.

Women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive a car because the kingdom—another war on terror ally and the keeper of our oil—accepts a form of extremist Islam that is fueling, both ideologically and financially, radical Islamists who are killing or are plotting to kill innocent people (that would be us). But why bring up such unpleasantries?

Regrettably, the list of examples goes on but I think you get my drift.

There’s no question that the national security of the United States is a vital concern, and sometimes all you’re faced with are difficult choices. Besides, we can’t intervene in the internal affairs of every state on the planet, even if we’d like to.

But if you knew your local grocer beat his wife and bullied his employees, would you give him money to build a bigger store, or would you find somewhere else to buy your milk and eggs?

In my view, we diminish our nation and ourselves when we overlook egregious human rights abuses and provide arms and gobs of cash to thugs because, at first glance, they appear to have something we want—such as oil or a strategic location.

Even if true, we ought to have learned (over and over again) that tyrants make unreliable bedfellows. They always seem to need more money, more weapons, or more time to fulfill their end of the (Faustian) bargain.

Besides, it defies logic to suggest the world is a safer place with repressive, corrupt regimes hanging around. It’s not. It’s uncertain, unstable, and degrading. And it’s naive to think otherwise.

The United States should draw inspiration from the Arab street and start democratizing its foreign policy, beginning with a reassessment of our “allies.” In an age of social media, cell phones, and high-speed Internet connections, the world is becoming a much smaller, more open space. Time for the United States to get out in front of it.

I’m sure the new grocery store will sell our favorite ice cream too. 

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