The US Corruption Game – Cole in Tomdispatch

My essay, “The Corruption Game: What the Tunisian Revolution and WikiLeaks Tell Us about American Support for Corrupt Dictatorships in the Muslim World is up at The Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.

Excerpt:

In July of 2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador dined with Nesrine Ben Ali el-Materi and Sakher el-Materi, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, at their sumptuous mansion. Materi, who rose through nepotism to dominate Tunisia’s media, provided a 12-course dinner with Kiwi juice — “not normally available here” — and “ice cream and frozen yoghurt he had flown in from Saint Tropez,” all served by an enormous staff of well-paid servants. The ambassador remarked on the couple’s pet tiger, “Pasha,” which consumed “four chickens a day” at a time of extreme economic hardship for ordinary Tunisians.

Other cables detail the way the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans engaged in a Tunisian version of insider trading, using their knowledge of the president’s upcoming economic decisions to scarf up real estate and companies they knew would suddenly spike in value. In 2006, the U.S. ambassador estimated that 50% of the economic elite of Tunisia was related by blood or marriage to the president, a degree of nepotism hard to match outside some of the Persian Gulf monarchies.

Despite full knowledge of the corruption and tyranny of the regime, the U.S. embassy concluded in July 2009: “Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral.”

The notion that, if the U.S. hadn’t given the Tunisian government hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid over the past two and a half decades, while helping train its military and security forces, a shadowy fringe group calling itself “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” might have established a “toehold” in the country was daft. Yet this became an all-weather, universal excuse for bad policy.

Read the whole thing.

7 Responses

  1. “Other cables detail the way the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans engaged in a Tunisian version of insider trading, using their knowledge of the president’s upcoming economic decisions to scarf up real estate and companies they knew would suddenly spike in value. ”

    This sort of insider trading is legal in the US for the Congress and is widely practiced.

    link to bloomberg.com

  2. “paranoia about Muslim fundamentalist movements and terrorism is causing Washington to make bad choices”
    (from Professor Cole’s Counterpunch article)

    Let’s not forget that Uncle Sam greatly prefers fundies to secularists, nationalists, or God forbid, socialists.

    “Dude, where’s my country?” was the cry of Arafat and the Mid East nationalists. The US and Israel contrived to replace them with Islamic fundamentalists who now ask, “Dude, where’s my kingdom of God on earth?”

    This passes for progress in our faith-based era.

    • Please don’t apotheosize Yasser Arafat until you at least take a while to read this little article on his predations on “his people:” link to theatlantic.com

      Kind of takes the reader to a “richer,” more interesting level of reality, the one that lies under and behind the flag-flapping and rockets and bombs…

  3. “I fear that we now stand before a new and very critical phase in the Arab world,” [ Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom], who was himself born in Tunisia in 1958, said in an interview aired on Israeli radio on Jan. 14. Israel and the majority of its Arab neighbors now agree on the importance of fighting Islamic fundamentalism, Shalom said. His concern lies with what might happen if Arab states start becoming democratic.He fears Tunisia might “set a precedent that could be repeated in other countries, possibly affecting directly the stability of our system.”If democratic governments take over Israel’s neighboring states, the vice prime minister said, the days of the Arab-Israeli security alliance will be over.Link

  4. “The notion that, if the U.S. hadn’t given the Tunisian government hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid over the past two and a half decades, while helping train its military and security forces, a shadowy fringe group calling itself “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” might have established a “toehold” in the country was daft. …….Yet this became an all-weather, universal excuse for bad policy.”

    First point is how telling this all is, as a reflection of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without massive US (over?) reactions around the world, the nature of the AQ threat might’ve faded as have any number of anarchist movements. On the other hand, who knows? If the prudent course is to “stabilize” the situation, in the sense of setting a bone until a critical time passes, the US course charted in Tunisia was credible. Trouble is when the metaphorical bone is not set properly, and is fundamentally corrupt. Empowering a kleptocracy is at best desperately shortsighted, but that was the definition of Dubya’s administration.

    Once again, the bureaucratic imperative of taking the most defensible course prevails. So yes, that was the excuse, and I suspect it has been since the beginning of conservatism, as it defines taking the most “responsible” course in any organization.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the scenario in Egypt plays out. It is different, but similar in the sense that the status quo has been living in its “state of emergency” for 30-odd years. But ultimately it is the will of the ultimately irrepressible will of the people that will tell the tale, regardless of whatever factual analogy does or does not exist.

  5. “We will never know if the FIS might have evolved into a parliamentary, democratic party, as later happened to the Justice and Development Party of Turkey, the leaders of which had been Muslim fundamentalists in the 1990s.”

    I don’t know much about the FIS but I can tell a bit about the Justice and Development Party (AKP). They didn’t have fundamentalist tendencies but ‘the now leaders of AKP were a part of such a group’. They separated from that old hard-line group and won the first elections with an overwhelming majority. I can now tell you for sure that AKP is the best thing that had happened to Turkey after her founding.

    I totally agree with the suggestion that bad decisions make things worse than. If AKP was suppressed in 2002 in Turkey, things might have gone worse and the country could have been more open to groups with violent ambitions. At the end of the day, isn’t it what one would do if you do not let them do it the honest and democratic way?

  6. Will the United States ever have a foreign policy that is not shot through with utter hypocrisy? In the Cold War era, we propped up a variety of brutal dictators, from the Shah of Iran to Pinochet in Chile and Somoza in Nicaragua, in ostensible obeisance to the domino theory and containment doctrine. Now the cast of characters has changed a little, and we claim to be warding off a different, insidious threat to liberty. But we remain a life-support system for regimes that do not practice what we preach.

    We enjoy telling ourselves that we are an exceptional nation, a shining city on a hill, casting a thousand points of light upon the sky. We are in fact an exceptionally hypocritical nation, governed by a tarnished city in a swamp, conducting our murderous affairs in the shadows.

    It is all very well for President Obama to lecture the Egyptians about turning the internet back on, while his own government uses extra-legal means to suppress a global news organization and seeks to prosecute its founder for espionage. (Will deaths in Egypt and Tunisia now be blamed upon Wikileaks by the Vice-President? It would not be surprising.) We, the great American people, smugly satisfied with our own exceptionalism, see no inconsistency here. For we set the standards by which the rest of the world shall be judged. Only God himself may judge America, and He has already pronounced us his chosen people.

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