Tag Archives: Freedom House

Look Homeward, Joe

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Democracy, like charity, begins at home. Before we Americans lecture others about democracy, we must secure our own democratic institutions. If we are to be, as John Winthrop said on the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 and President Ronald Reagan often cited, “as a citty [sic] upon a hill [for] the eies [sic] of all people are upon us,” then we must, in fact, be that city on a hill. 

Citizens of democracies around the world no longer see the United States as a beacon of freedom. In a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of people in 16 democratic countries once thought America was a “good” democratic model, but now only 17 percent believe the United States “is a good example for other countries to follow.” Our warts are on display. 

The idea of America as a democracy comes to mind as President Joe Biden hosts this week a virtual “Summit for Democracy.” There has been much quibbling over who was and was not invited. The U.S. State Department cites the governments of Pakistan and the Philippines as responsible for “unlawful and arbitrary killings,” but both countries were asked to attend. Hungary, a member of the European Union and NATO, and Turkey, also a NATO ally, did not make the cut. Both deserved to be excluded, but there is a question as to whether the standards for invitations were evenly applied. 

Democracy is in retreat around the world. Freedom House reports that 2020 “marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.” Freedom House says nearly 75 percent of the world’s population live in countries where freedom is waning. As Ann Applebaum headlined in a recent article in The Atlantic, “The Bad Guys Are Winning.”

Those bad actors may be winning at home, too. It is certainly a plus for the fate of democracy that the occupant of the White House today is Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. But, Trump has damaged, and continues to damage, American democracy. Abroad, his coddling of dictators — including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump “fell in love” and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whom Trump believed over the American intelligence community — hardly encouraged democratic movements in countries with authoritarian regimes. America now has a president willing to call out dictators. Biden may be shy, unfortunately, in condemning human rights violations by countries with whom the United States wishes to have good relations (Saudi Arabia, that means you), but he has acted against China with a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and warned Russia about provocative moves against Ukraine. 

But, it is the damage Trump has done to America’s democratic institutions that caused Freedom House to say that freedom in the United States declined by 11 points, placing America among the 25 countries that have suffered the largest declines in the decade between 2010 and 2020. To be fair, the erosion of democracy in the United States has been ongoing for decades — Freedom House cites political corruption and punitive immigration policy as two factors in the decline of freedom in America, both of which did not begin with Trump — but the Trump presidency certainly accelerated the trend.

Trump continues to threaten democratic stability while out of office. His efforts to overturn the 2020 election and influence future elections weaken America’s constitutional foundation. The violence of the January 6 insurrection to prevent the peaceful transition of power, the praising of violence and intolerance among Republicans, the refusal of a vast majority of Republicans to confront their party’s threat to democracy, and the continuing efforts to suppress voting in many states along with the empowering by Republican state legislatures of Republican election officials to tamper with voting outcomes all jeopardize democracy at home and undermine Washington’s ability to influence democracy abroad. 

Biden and his fellow Democrats know all this to be true, but they seem hesitant to take strong actions to preserve American democracy. Biden gave a speech in July at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia about the need to safeguard the right to vote, which he labelled “fundamental” to the protection of democracy. He attacked Trump for promulgating the “big lie,” and cited numerous instances of current assaults on voting rights. Biden ended by saying, “We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole…. I’m not saying this to alarm you; I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”

It sounded like a clarion call, but a clarion call the president has not answered. Nor has the bulk of the Democratic Party, which continues to refuse to abolish or amend the filibuster, the single most significant obstacle to Congress passing substantive voting rights reform to guarantee every American’s right to vote. The possibility that more than two centuries of self-government in America might be at an end ought to move the president and his congressional allies to action. But, they seem paralyzed in the face of the palpable danger.

Certainly, Biden is busy trying to secure his agenda. The passage of the infrastructure bill occupied much of his attention until it passed Congress. Biden is now focused on the continuing fight to enact the vast measure to extend the American social safety net, now tied up in the Senate. But, all of these pale in importance before the onslaught by the American right on American democracy.

The current president must take effective measures to protect American democracy — starting with guaranteeing every American the right to vote — to insure that the former president does not use his vast army — I chose that word deliberately — to undermine American democracy. So, President Biden, please preserve and protect our American democracy. Only then can you legitimately and credibly  further democracy abroad.

Posted December 10, 2020

Making Nice to the Saudis

Remember the optimistic belief of three decades ago that freedom and democracy were on the march? The liberal democratic model was touted as the wave fo the future following the end of Communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union.

No more! Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded, non-governmental agency which charts freedom throughout the world, reports that 71 countries suffered a decline in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, while only 35 registered gains. Those depressing conclusions mark “the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”

Even casual observers are aware of the ascent of illiberal rulers. Vladimir Putin uses repression and assassination to cower the Russian population. The Chinese Communist Party recently declared Xi Jinping president for life, and Xi wasted no time incarcerating more than one-million Uighurs, Muslims living in western China, in so-called “reeducation camps.” Syria’s Bashar al-Assad gases his own citizens, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines sanctions death squads, ostensibly to root out drug traffickers. Autocratic rulers in Poland and Hungary are undermining democracy.

The causes for the rise of authoritarianism are multi-faceted. Some are rooted in world-wide phenomena, others in the peculiar history and development of individual countries. But the role of the United States cannot be ignored. In the first part of this decade, President Barack Obama often spoke for the downtrodden and repressed in promoting human rights and did not shy away from labelling countries for illiberal practices, but he proved reluctant to back up his words with action. The most notorious instance of Obama’s unwillingness to enforce international norms was his refusal to intervene in the Syrian civil war after Assad used chemical weapons on Syrians.

Now, the United States has a president who is not only disinclined to support human rights globally but who expresses his admiration for some of the world’s most despotic rulers. For the narcissistic President Donald Trump, all that matters is what other world leaders say about him. How they treat their own people — or even other countries — is irrelevant.  

Given the American president’s “love” for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, envy of Xi’s presidency for life, and refusal to condemn Putin’s interference in American elections, it is not surprising that Trump has expressed little indignation over Saudi Arabia’s apparent complicity in the disappearance and probable murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and columnist for The Washington Post. Trump’s few tepid condemnations of the Saudi government have been undermined by tweets indicating he accepts Saudi denials of complicity. The president even went so far as to offer Saudi Arabia a cover story, claiming “rogue killers” may have been responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, an explanation the Saudi government appears ready to adopt. 

To be sure, the United States long has had an important and beneficial relationship with the desert kingdom. American dependence on oil makes it difficult to take action against the Saudis, though the Trump administration’s disinclination to pursue alternative energy sources makes America even more dependent on fossil fuels such as Saudi oil. Saudi Arabia is a reliable purchaser of American weaponry and a partner in trying to control Iranian influence in the Middle East. First son-in-law Jared Kushner has developed a personal relationship with the Saudi heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Kushner believes, perhaps naively, he can work with MBS in pursuing Middle East peace. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich summed up the administration’s position on Khashoggi: “People would like to see something done because it’s horrific. But it’s not bad enough to make the Iranians happy and screw up the global economy. Who is going to put this high enough on the list of priorities that it suddenly overwhelms everything else that is going on?”

Except — it is bad enough! The Saudi role in Khashoggi’s fate is an attack on freedom of the press, and it is worth condemning as such. But, it is not just Saudi Arabia’s role in Khashoggi’s disappearance that is relevant when considering relations between Washington and Riyadh. The truth is that the Crown Prince is a hotheaded, impulsive ruler who, despite Kushner’s naive hopes, cannot be trusted and is not a reliable partner. Setting aside MBS, there is a history of Saudi transgressions. 

In 1979, the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamic fundamentalists terrified the Saudi royal family. To head off further terrorist incidents, Saudi Arabia adopted many of the fundamentalists’ positions. It tightened religious control, and it exported a puritanical form of Sunni Islam abroad, which, it turned out, inspired the 9/11 hijackers and the rise of ISIS. 

More recently, Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a war in Yemen, in which the United States is complicit, that is one of the least known but worst humanitarian disasters in recent years. Perhaps more than 50,000 people have been killed in the fighting in Yemen in the last three years, and reliable estimates say that three-quarters of the people in what is already one of the poorest countries in the world need humanitarian assistance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently assured Congress that the Saudis were trying to minimize civilian casualties, but both Riyadh and Washington favor prosecuting the war in an effort to defeat the Houthis, a group of Shiite rebels supported by Iran.  

Geopolitical considerations — stemming Iran’s influence in the region — have led the Trump administration to support the Saudi war (in truth, President Obama also ignored the humanitarian disaster in Yemen). The current adminsitration, no doubt, fears that any sanctions placed on Saudi Arabia for its role in Khashoggi’s apparent murder might impede prosecution of the Yemeni war.

And, the president’s ego plays into how the United States responds. After all, the Saudis have courted the president, spending money at his Washington hotel and feting Trump when he visited the desert kingdom on his first international trip in office. Clearly, all that is more important to Trump-the-narcissist than the fate of one Saudi journalist — or thousands of Yemenis.

Posted October 19, 2018