Some months back, it was quite popular for pundits and foreign policy commentators to rue the fact that Obama was actually considering – gulp – engaging less-than-democratic regimes in North Korea and Iran (though the latter is, really, quite more democratic than the former).
Notably, James Traub couched Obama’s tepid, insignificant outreach to Iran in paradigm-shifting terms: That, as opposed to Bush, Obama might be willing to cut deals with non-democratic regimes – or “tyrants” as he termed them.
As if Obama were abandoning some long-held US tradition of principled reluctance to engage with, let alone support (with massive amounts of money and arms), despots, dictators and strongmen. As if the latter half of the 20th century wasn’t replete with incidents where the US government actively worked to topple democracies in favor or dictators, or actively sought to manipulate foreign elections with infusions of cash and propaganda.
Recent revelations of a proposed US arms deal with Saudi Arabia – ruled by a brutal, theocratic monarchy that actively proliferates extremist ideology/theology – highlights the blatant contradiction:
The Obama administration is set to notify Congress of plans to offer advanced aircraft to Saudi Arabia worth up to $60 billion, the largest U.S. arms deal ever, and is in talks with the kingdom about potential naval and missile-defense upgrades that could be worth tens of billions of dollars more. [...]
On top of the $60 billion package of fighter jets and helicopters, U.S. officials are discussing a potential $30 billion package to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s naval forces. An official described these as “discreet, bilateral conversations” in which no agreement has yet been reached. That deal could include littoral combat ships, surface vessels intended for operations close to shore, the official said.
So the rule goes something like this:
Merely sitting down at the negotiating table with Iran: totally unprincipled, an abandonment of long-held ideals, unacceptably rewarding non-democratic regimes, a bad message to pro-democracy movements in the region.
Consummating the largest arms deal in US history with the Saudi royals: staying true to our commitment to promote democracy and refusal to support, let alone engage with, any brutal despots, dictators or monarchs. Part of the freedom agenda.