Arab spring turns toward autocracy

Democracy is easier to espouse than to achieve. The task is even harder from a distance. We say we favor democracy in Syria. We say we favor democracy in Egypt. But recent developments in both countries make clear that high-flown sentiment can crash.

In Syria, no one can predict the outcome, because, unlike Libya, a substantial part of the population supports the current regime and fears reprisal if it falls. There is no assurance that a post-Assad Syria would be democratic.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood at first said it would not field a candidate for the presidency. Then it decided to do so, and a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, has now been sworn in as president. Morsi may moderate his past views, but who knows.

In Libya, we had little idea what might replace the Moammar Gadhafi government. A few weeks ago, an Amnesty International report on prisons in Libya found brutality against detainees as widespread as ever.

A major problem for the United States is even-handedness. During the Cold War, we overlooked autocracy if a country was on our side. Now we purport to promote democracy for all.

But in 2006, parliamentary elections were held in Palestine, elections that were roundly declared to be free and fair. The winning party was Hamas, which we consider a terrorist organization. We said we would have nothing to do with a government in which it participated. We favored democracy – but the “wrong” side won, so we made an exception.

We made another in Bahrain recently when its government suppressed demonstrators. We have important military interests in Bahrain.

The Arab states see that we cover for rights violations by their adversary, Israel. In the United Nations Security Council, we veto the frequent draft resolutions that rebuke Israel for its settlements in the Palestinian Arab West Bank, which is under Israel’s military occupation.

The International Criminal Court prosecutes for war crimes, and building settlements in militarily occupied territory is a war crime. The International Criminal Court has a basis for investigating and prosecuting this crime on the strength of a jurisdictional declaration filed in 2009 by the Government of Palestine. Our government has fought tooth and nail to keep the court from investigating.

Last March, the U.N. Human Rights Council called for an inquiry into the impact on the Palestinian Arab population of Israel’s settlements. Of the 47 states voting on whether to have an inquiry, only one voted against – the United States. Unless we can create the impression that we are at least modestly even-handed, no one will take us seriously when we purport to promote observance of human rights in that part of the world.

Leading by example on rights issues would help. We have sullied our own reputation in the Middle East by rationalizing the violation of rights based on our declared “war against terror.”

International human rights institutions have repeatedly pilloried the United States for torture and for setting up secret detention facilities. We disregard accepted rights norms by holding people indefinitely at Guantanamo. Our newly increased use of drone aircraft to target individuals has spread terror in certain areas of Pakistan. We accept the inevitable “collateral” deaths as a necessary cost. Yet these are the rights issues on which we are judged.

All that said, we should advocate for rights protection in the Middle East, even if we are not entirely consistent on the issue. Rights protection should be an aim of all governments. But our capacity to see rights protected in other countries is limited, especially if we envisage overthrowing a government.

There is little basis for predicting the future of a country in ferment. Our government might do well to heed the motto of the medical profession: First, do no harm.

Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University.