US Foreign Policy Is Geared Toward National Interest, Not Democracy Promotion

With the uprising in Egypt following the fall of president Mohamed Morsi, who had been ousted by the Egyptian military, the United States foreign spokespeople fall back on the claim that they hope that the country could allow democracy to flourish. Secretary of State, John Kerry, condemned the violence in Egypt and regarded today’s events as “deplorable” and running “counter to Egyptian aspiration for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy” (Xinhua News 2013). In a moment of political unrest (with 638 people dead so far- Lynch 2013), the US is repeating its high-minded claims about wanting to pursue democracy in the states that it funds and controls. Though the US is an outsider with regard to the immediate political turmoil unfolding between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood, it controls the $1.3 billion in military aid, which is annually distributed to the government in Egypt. The lawmakers are currently debating whether or not to cut off funds to Egypt. President Obama has already called off joint military exercises with the Egyptian military (Oregon Live 2013). Regardless of what decision the US administration makes, the important question is whether the high-minded words of state officials really corresponds to US objectives. My claim is that US foreign policy making is almost exclusively linked to the pursuit of national interests rather than democracy. If democracy is somehow in accordance with national interests, then there is no difficulty in pursuing democracy. If there is an apparent conflict between the two, then democracy is sacrificed for national security.

So let us first determine where US interests are in Egypt. US allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arabic countries want to maintain the current interim government led by Adly Mansour, and approved by the Egyptian military, because they are afraid about the Islamists, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which had led the government until the ousting in early July. Israel has long considered Islamists as threat to their security as shown by Morsi’s support for the Palestinians, and Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime simply fears similar popular uprisings within their own borders. It was only after the coup that Saudi Arabia along with the United Arabic Emirates and Kuwait handed out $12 billion in foreign aid to Egypt. The US rarely contradicts its closest allies in the region, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The United States, in the mean time, is highlighting its own national security interests, namely the right to maintain overflight rights, priority passage through the Suez, and partnership with Israel (Nordland and Knowlton 2013). Besides, the military aid flow from Washington guarantees that our military-industrial complex in the US maintains a secure base of customers in Egypt. But most importantly, Washington has an interest to have a government in place in Cairo, which does what the US wants. That was what the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979 was all about. After being repeatedly crushed by Israel during their wars in 1967 and 1973, then-president Anwar Sadat had switched sides from supporting the Soviet Union to supporting the US. Whether a military government or a democratically elected government can do the job better for the US does not seem to matter (though there is a preference for autocratic countries, who have less ability to interfere with US policy preferences). If the US were really so strongly in pursuit of democracy, they would have condemned the military coup against Morsi right from the beginning, since Morsi was democratically elected (something which Israel and Saudi Arabia are recalcitrant in accepting, see Antony 2013). The US did not condemn the Egyptian military, but carefully supported it.

Historically, the US has not always opposed democracy. After the end of World War II it had used the Marshall plan to help rebuild Europe from the ashes of the war. The strong economic support from Washington had prevented the Soviet-communist takeover of Western Europe, and liberal democracy became more credible among the hungry, war-torn European masses, especially among West Germans, who had experienced a Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) in the 1950s and 1960s. The same story may be told in Japan. But these cases, as astounding as they might be, should be considered notable exceptions. Western Europe has had a moderately democratic tradition before the war, and Japan had been a member of the Western orbit since US Admiral Perry had forced his way into Japan in 1854. Promoting democracy in those countries after World War II was not only a reasonable idea, but a logical possibility.

It is different with many later US interventions. In the Vietnam War, which the US had inherited from the French (Vietnam was a French colony), the US desperately tried to support their allies in South Vietnam, whose leaders made no pretenses about democracy promotion. A proposed national referendum to bring the divided country, North and South Vietnam, together was vehemently rejected by the South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, fearing that reunification might occur, which undermines the regime’s power. His government was consistently supported by the US even as tens of thousands of political prisoners were taken by the Diem regime, and a regressive land policy to exclusively benefit upper-class landowners was carried out. Diem was assassinated in November 1963 (Wikipedia, Diem). There was no call from Washington about a lack of democracy among their allies, only the domino theory, which evoked the fear that communism from North Vietnam might spread south to engulf the whole of Asia. 58,000 US soldiers, over a million Vietnamese troops and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians had died from the war.

In the 1970s, another close ally of the US in Asia, Indonesia, was under a military dictatorship headed by general Suharto. Again no calls for democracy to be found. In 1975, Indonesia was considering an invasion on East Timor, where a left-wing political movement called “Fretilin” was taking power upon receiving independence from Portugal. Indonesia received the full backing of Washington, which had feared the expansion of communism in this tiny island. The US had eagerly supplied their Indonesian allies with military supplies to defeat the numerically and militarily weak country. 35,000 Indonesian troops entered East Timor which barely had 2,500 regular troops and 7,500 militia (Wikipedia, Indonesian Invasion). The Indonesian military carried out one of the largest genocides in history, killing roughly 100,000 inhabitants (or more, depending on the estimates cited).

The US has also intervened actively in Latin American politics, because it had been singled out in the Monroe doctrine of 1823 as being in Washington’s vital interest. In 1970, the socialist Salvador Allende was democratically elected as president of Chile. In his short tenure he carried out the nationalization of many industries and job-creation programs to quell social unrest. Access to educational and health services to broad masses of the population were improved, and agrarian reform redistributed land from a few large landowners to the majority peasants. The US had the opportunity to support this democratic government, especially because it pursued many policies that benefited the masses. But instead the large landowners in Chile (who were expropriated) and US business interests (US copper firms had huge stakes in Chile, which were effectively nationalized) were not at all enthralled about the Chilean government. President Nixon saw Allende as spreading Soviet communism, which had to be prevented and contained. The CIA under Nixon’s and Kissinger’s directive convinced Chilean military generals to carry out a coup against Allende. On September 11, 1973, the coup was carried out, Allende was assassinated and replaced by general Augusto Pinochet, who carried out undemocratic, neoliberal policies in Chile- with the heavy support of the US (Pike 1998).

Another example in the hemisphere is Haiti. In 1990, during the first free elections, Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the democratically elected president of Haiti. He immediately pushed for populist reforms, such as raising the minimum wage, building schools and public houses, passing peasant-friendly land reforms, and preventing the privatization of public companies (Annis 2010). The US, rather than supporting the democratic government of Haiti, was immediately opposed to Aristide. The US had advanced their own presidential candidate, Mark Bean, who had promoted neoliberal reforms to allow US agricultural corporations to export their heavily subsidized agricultural products to Haiti. US national interest, therefore, was to advance corporate interests over democratic interests. A military coup led by Raoul Cedras removed Aristide from office in 1991, which forced him into exile. The Bush and Clinton administrations supported the military junta until 1994, when a UN resolution and a US military intervention restored Aristide back into office in return for Aristide’s support of neoliberal programs. US agricultural interests subsequently flooded the Haitian market with their food products, leading to the extinction and impoverishment of Haitian rice farmers (Dobbs 2000). Aristide stepped down from office in 1996, but returned after the 2001 elections, again with enormous popular support. He pushed another set of popular reforms, such as higher taxes on the rich and literacy programs, but was ousted again in 2004 by the US (Chomsky 2004). The US flew Aristide to South Africa, and repeated requests for return were rejected by the US government. In 2011, Aristide returned to Haiti with strong opposition from the Obama administration (Wikipedia, Aristide).

After 9/11, the Bush administration had turned its attention against Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraq War that started in 2003 was hailed as a campaign to bring democracy to Iraq. The other rationale for the invasion was Saddam Hussein’s apparent possession of weapons of mass destruction, whose evidence was fabricated by the CIA, and the possible link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 (which did not exist). This is ironic, especially since Hussein was cheerfully supported by the Reagan and Bush Sr. administration, as long as he was fighting against the hated Ayatollah in Iran. The war in Iraq did, indeed, bring democracy and parliamentary elections into Iraq, but coupled by enormous sectarian violence between Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds, political instability, regular suicide attacks, deaths, emigration and displacement. The US has spent at least $2 trillion in the Iraq War. A very heavy cost for the achievement of democracy! A more likely explanation for the Iraq War was Hussein’s decision in 2000 to sell their plentiful oil in euros rather than dollars, thereby threatening the reserve currency position of the US dollar. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi oil trade was switched back to the US dollar, and the dollar hegemony was maintained. This allows the US to print a lot of money without fearing inflation, because the currency keeps on being circulated (unless a country can live without oil). Iran’s decision to similarly declare independence from the dollar might explain current US hostilities against the Iranian regime (Clark 2007). US national security interests required the invasion of Iraq, not any humanitarian concerns for democracy in the region.

In conclusion, US claims about promoting democracy have to be seriously questioned. What the US is doing is what is expected of a superpower that spends half of global military spending: to promote the national interest above the democratic interest of the various populations the US needs to control. Perhaps the state department officials are directing their messages to the American audience rather than an international audience, but, in any case, among the people in the Middle East, who in large part condemn US actions in the region, there is no confusion about whom they mistrust. According to a 2010 poll, 77% of the Arab people deem the US to be the biggest threat to them (the countries sampled include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan- Telhami 2010).


Annis, Roger. 2010. “Criticism of Aristide Is Misplaced.” Socialist Worker, February 2.

Antony, Carole. 2013. “Crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood: Shifting Alliances in the Middle East.” Global Research, July 28.

Chomsky, Noam. 2004. “Haiti’s History: Noam Chomsky Traces Underpinnings of Aristide’s Ouster Back to 1991-1994 Coup.” MIT, In Democracy Now, February 24.

Clark, William. 2007. “Hysteria Over Iran and a New Cold War with Russia: Peak Oil, Petro Currencies, and the Emerging Multi-Polar World.” Petro Dollar Warfare.

Dobbs, Michael. 2000. “Push to Free Market Hard on Haiti.” Washington Post, April 16.,4559166&dq=washington+post+free+market+left+haiti’s+rice+growers+behind&hl=en

Lynch, Sarah. 2013. “Death Toll Rises to 638 in Egypt; Condemnation Widens.” USA Today, August 15.

Nordland, Rod, and Brian Knowlton. 2013. “Amid New Egyptian Protests, U.S. Lawmakers Conflicted on Cutting Aid.” New York Times, August 18.

Oregon Live. 2013. “Congress Is Split on Cutting Off $1.3 Billion in Military Aid to Egypt.” August 18.

Pike, John. 1998. “Allende’s Leftist Regime.”

Telhami, Shibley. 2010. “2010 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey.” University of Maryland, Zogby International.

Wikipedia. Indonesian Invasion of East Timor.

Wikipedia. Ngo Dinh Diem.

Wikipedia. Aristide.

Xinhua News. 2013. “Kerry Slams Violence in Egypt.” August 15.

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