Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ideals, Oil and American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy is a confused jumble. This fact has been underscored by the recent US involvement in the Libyan civil war. The American role in fighting Libyan dictator Muammar Quaddafi through the enforcement of a no-fly zone has made me wonder what the goals of US foreign policy should be in regards to the “Arab Spring” now shaking the governments of the Middle East and North Africa. More disturbing is the increasing lack of American moral authority in these regions of the world, where we have propped up oppressive dictatorships and monarchies in order to ensure political stability and the flow of oil to the West. The brave opponents of these regimes will be hurt in the long run if the US doesn’t determine a consistent foreign policy that buttresses the ideals that are supposedly at the heart of American engagement in the world: democracy and human rights. If the US doesn’t consider these ideals important in foreign policy, than why say that they are? Why not embrace the “national interests” argument and be open about the need to keep Libyan oil flowing, no matter if it means sacrificing the possibilities presented by the Arab Spring?

It’s easy to see where American democratic rhetoric falls short on the ideals front. The situation in the West African nation Ivory Coast provides one example. Laurent Gbagbo, who became president in 2000, was defeated in an election held last November. The election was considered fair by international monitors, but Gbagbo decided to stay on. His security forces have used violence against citizens in the capital, Abidjan, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Alassane Outtara, who won the election, has been holed up in a hotel, protected by United Nations troops. The following quote from a New York Times article sums up the dire situation: “He [Gbagbo] has also brutally snuffed out dissent. One of the last peaceful, sustained expressions of public dissent in Abidjan — women protesting with branches symbolizing peace — was mowed down in volleys of machine-gun fire from Mr. Gbagbo’s security forces” (New York Times, online edition, March 23, 2011). Wouldn’t a no-fly zone have helped these heroic women resist this illegal regime? Or, has the US decided that national interests are more important than ideals?

In addition to the bloody situation in Ivory Coast, Saudi Arabia recently sent troops into Bahrain, a tiny island nation off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy has ignored the same anger and resentment that brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. However, Bahrain is home to the American Fifth Fleet and is a banking center that also produces a respectable amount of oil. Thousands of Shiite protesters, calling for democratic reform, were brutally beaten and dispersed by security forces, with little protest from the United States. If our foreign policy goals in regards to Bahrain are to preserve American military bases there and to avoid embarrassing the Saudi monarchy in order to keep the oil flowing, then our policy has been a rousing success.

The simple point is this: if President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have decided that American ideals of democracy and self-determination are at stake in Libya, then why do they not apply in Ivory Coast and Bahrain? If national interests (security, both physical and economic) are what really drives US foreign policy, do those people a favor who have decided to risk their lives resisting corrupt regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt: level with them now about US intentions. Why give them hope if the Americans will be absent when they need the moral support to build a more humane, democratic world?


  1. US foreign policy has often seemed to be "he may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch." Oppressive dictators are fine with us as long as we get what we want out of them and they more or less keep their mouths shut...Saddam Hussein did not bother us for years while he was as war with Iran...South and Central American policies and what you wrote about in the Ivory Coast are more examples...although IC maybe more of a "we just do not care enough about you people" attitude...there is not much political gain for the administration to help those people. It is sad and tragic.
    Excellent piece.

  2. Thanks for reading and posting a comment, Mike. I think your point about the US role in Latin America is a good one, especially in the context of the Cold War, when taking care of dictators was seen as necessary to keep the USSR out of the region.

  3. Larry(Dr Sorbonne) your point on the situation in the Arab world and Cote d'Ivoire is simply awesome, it is mind-blowing. I cannot think of any better way to render it. You simply reminded me of the French adage "deux poids deux mesures"... in other words different forms of justice apply to different people and different situations. The WIIFM principle ( What Is in It For Me) seems to prevail everywhere now....
    Keep it up my dear professor, i look forward to more reflections.

  4. Moussa--thank you for your kind words. I wonder how NATO will be able to protect civilians in Libya without boots on the ground. Le Monde reported this morning that mutilated bodies are being found along the route to Benghazi--most likely civilians. The article blamed Quaddafi's soldiers, but it's difficult to know what's really going on.

  5. The ongoing challenge/problem. You have, again, assessed the heart of the matter. The dichotomy between official statements and actions (the political/diplomatic paradox/paradigm is well articulated). Keep it up.

  6. Thanks, Anonymous, for your post. Let's hope that the US will formulate a more coherent policy toward this part of the world. We're not trying to get rid of Quaddafi but are attacking his forces. I heard this morning that CIA operatives are on the ground in Libya helping to direct NATO air strikes. Interesting to see what develops...

  7. Susan On Line ClassApril 5, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    The only thing the United States wants from these countries is oil. It appears to me that we will support the existing government and then when rebels try to take power we support them. As always innocent people are killed by both sides. If we don't be careful one of these days we will have to drill our onw oil.

  8. Thank you for your post, Susan. I agree--oil is the main motivation. I think we may see louder voices in Congress in favor of more drilling in the US. It will be interesting to see.