By William Van Wagenen

Most people in the United States have the impression that the US government places a high priority on promoting democracy through its foreign policy. This is not true however. The US government promotes its own strategic military interests as well as the economic interests of American businesses.Doing so sometimes requires promoting democracy, but more often than not requires supporting dictatorships, and even sometimes overthrowing democratic governments and replacing them with dictatorships.

Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have illustrated this pattern of U.S .support for dictators. The US has been trying to keep its long time dictator friends in power in Bahrain,Yemen,Kuwait,Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, even though the people who are struggling to peacefully overthrow these dictators have been demanding exactly what the US government professes to promote: democracy.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) clearly articulated US policy in regards to these uprisings:

The Obama administration is trying to “help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait.” because if the U.S. abandoned Arab dictators such as “the beleaguered king of Bahrain, a chain of revolts could sweep the [other pro-US Arab governments] from power, too, and further upend the region’s stability.” [1]

So why do the demands for democracy of these countries’ populations have to wait? Why does the U.S.standby while their close allies massacre peaceful demonstrators? And how would the fall of these U.S.-backed Arab dictatorships affect US interests in the region?

If democratic revolutions succeeded through out the Middle East and North Africa,US interests would suffer in several ways. The US would lose 1) tens of billions of dollars each year of U.S.weapons sales to Arab governments; 2) key military/naval bases in the heart of the world’s main energy producing region; 3) intelligence and military cooperation from Arab governments currently allied with the US in the so-called War on Terror.


Weapons Sales

The WSJ reports that, “Before the outbreak of unrest, the Obama Administration had been aggressively pushing to sell increasingly sophisticated arms to oil-rich Arab allies,” which constitute “one of the fastest-growing markets for U.S. defense contractors.” The US had recently signed a 10-year, $60 billion dollar deal to sell Saudi Arabia advanced F-15 fighters, helicopters and other advanced weapons. The Arab nations of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan are set to buy a total of $70 billion of arms in 2011, and a total of $80 billion in 2015.[2]

These arms sales are important for the U.S., not only due to the revenue they bring to the U.S. Treasury and arms manufacturers, but also because they give the U.S. some measure of control over these Arab governments, as “Washington could cut off supplies of replacement parts and other equipment needed to keep the arms up and running. ‘It keeps us connected,’ a defense official said.” [3]

If  these Arab dictators fall in domino fashion as Washington fears, these arms sales would end because, “What Washington doesn’t want to do is deliver its latest military technology to regimes that might lose power,” defense expert Loren Thompson notes, especially if these regimes no longer support US interests and/or become allies of Iran. [4]

Military Bases

If the Arab dictators fall the US risks losing several important military bases in the Gulf region. A democratic government responsive to the desires of the general population in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Qatar may request that these bases be closed, as they are used to station the troops and store the weapons needed to implement U.S.foreign policies which are extremely unpopular among the populations of the Middle East. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, bitterly opposed by the Arab public, but supported by Arab governments, is a case in point.

The case of Bahrain is illustrative of the importance accorded these bases by U.S.military planners. The WSJ noted that, “Bahrain sits in a key strategic position in the Persian Gulf, where a fifth of the world’s oil supplies pass. It hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet—a home to 3,000 military personnel who oversee 30 naval ships and some 30,000 sailors.”[5]

A senior U.S. defense official confirmed Bahrain’s importance, noting that, “Bahrain is a front line state in a regional competition with Iran. . . . It’s a very, very important strategic partner,”[6] while a senior Arab diplomat suggested that, “If the U.S. loses Bahrain, they risk losing the Persian Gulf.”[7]

Because of this, theU.S.has stood by the Bahraini King and refused to demand for his fall from power, even though Bahraini security forces have used live ammunition to massacre unarmed, peaceful protesters.

For example, the WSJ reported on February 18, 2011 that, “Before dawn Thursday, riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets took over a traffic circle occupied by protesters, killing at least three people. Violence in five days of clashes brought the overall death toll between protesters and security forces to five, according to hospital workers. . . One witness, who gave his name as Khalil, said the older man had been arguing with security forces at the square when they made him lie on the ground and then shot him in the head at close range.” [8]

The next day, the WSJ reported that:

“Soldiers fired live rounds on thousands of marching protesters in this Persian Gulf emirate, dramatically escalating the conflict in one of the world’s key energy corridors. . . Mourners, grieving, angry and buoyed by rumors that the military had partially withdrawn from the city, elected to walk to the Pearl Square roundabout, the iconic landmark occupied by protesters until security forces violently cleared it on Thursday. At approximately 150 yards from the roundabout, the call to prayer for Muslims came and 50 men at the front of the protest line began to pray, while others lifted their hands saying “peaceful, peaceful.  “At that point, according to several witnesses, soldiers behind sandbanks opened fire with tear gas, sound bombs and live rounds. Abas Salman, a 33-year-old driver from the outskirts of Manama who was near the front of the protest, said many remained standing as the shooting came in bursts, “they held their arms aloft to show they were unarmed. Many were shot, one man hit on the arm tried to run to the front, screaming that he was ready to die, but we held him back.” [9]

A video taken from a cell phone of what appears to be the same massacre can be viewed here.[10]

Military Cooperation

If existing pro-U.S Arab governments fall, this will undermine U.S.efforts to prosecute the so-called War on Terror, as well as US  intelligence efforts in the region generally.

If the popular protests succeed in toppling the regime in Yemen specifically, the US will lose the cooperation of the Yemeni military, which it now relies on heavily to pursue Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As result, the U.S.refuses to call for the removal of the Yemeni dictator, President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Cairo, “We’ve had a good working relationship with President Saleh. . . . He has been an important ally in the counter-terrorism arena.”[11] The WSJ also noted that, “Mr. Saleh, who has been in power more than 30 years, has been an important regional ally for the U.S.,” and that “Washington has provided millions of dollars in military aid to Yemen to help Mr. Saleh battle the ambitious Yemen-based affiliate of Al-Qaeda.”[12]

This strong support comes despite the fact that the Yemeni security forces (including those trained and armed by the US), have used live ammunition to massacre peaceful protesters as well. The Telegraph (UK) reported on March 18, 2011 that:

Loyalist gunmen, believed to be members of the Yemeni security forces, opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters who massed outside Sana’a University, the epicentre of a month-long popular campaign to overthrow the president. Doctors said that between 30 and 41 people were killed and over 200 more were wounded on the single bloodiest day since the eruption of the protests against Mr Saleh, a key US ally in the war against al Qaeda. . . . ”[13] In the end, the death toll reportedly reached 52.[14]

On April 5, USA Today reported, “Uniformed soldiers killed 15 people Monday when they fired on a crowd of protesters demanding the ouster of longtime ruler President Ali Abdullah Saleh.”[15]

Al-Quds Al-Arabi, an Arabic daily newspaper published in London, described these killings as follows: “The protesters demanding the fall of the regime moved towards the base of the compound of the leadership of the province of Taiz and when they reached the wall of the compound, government forces, including the provincial security forces and the Republican Guard, opened fire on the protesters in an indiscriminate way that was unprecedented [my translation].”[16]

The US can be indirectly implicated in these atrocities, as just four days before this incident, the WSJ had reported  that President Saleh’s “eldest son, Ahmed, commands the U.S.-funded and –trained Republic Guard,” which participated in the killings noted above.[17]

Over the course of more than three months of mass protests demanding his removal, Saleh’s position has become weaker and weaker.  Reports begun to surface that the U.S. is finally looking to remove Saleh from power, and have him replaced by someone in his inner circle or a family member who will be continue to protect U.S. interests.

In response to these reports, Yemeni Post journalist, Hakim Al-Masmari, noted that “The US does not trust who will come in power next . . . . That is why we believe they will not force Saleh to leave for at least weeks to come so that they can ensure their agenda is not harmed when Saleh leaves.”[18] The US followed similar strategy in Egypt, where they supported Mubarak as long as possible. But once it became clear there was no way to keep him in office, they sought a transition to a new leader that would continue to protect US interests, as I will detail below.

Intelligence Cooperation

The democratic uprisings are also having a negative effect on US intelligence efforts in the Middle East, providing a further rationale for attempting to keep the remaining pro-US dictators in power.

The WSJ describes the influence that the spread of democracy is having on US intelligence efforts as follows: “The tumult that is challenging autocratic regimes across the Middle East is upending U.S. intelligence relationships built over decades. The changes threaten to undermine U.S. influence in the region at a crucial moment and leave efforts to combat al Qaeda and other Islamist groups in limbo.”[19]

The case ofEgyptillustrates this well. In an attempt to appease the Egyptian youth protesting in the streets ofCairo, the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak named his long-time intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to the post of Vice President. When the Mubarak regime finally fell a few weeks later, Murad Muwafi, a man relatively unknown to the American intelligence agencies, was appointed as the new Egyptian intelligence chief.

The WSJ reports that “U.S., European and Israeli officials are worried that Mr. Muwafi, like the rest of the Egyptian national security establishment, will soon find himself working with a new [Egyptian] government that is likely to be more responsive to public opinion, which is overwhelmingly negative on the US and Israel. Elections are scheduled for late this year.”[20]

Noteworthy of course is the explicit contempt for democracy expressed by the US intelligence officials quoted above.U.S.planners know that the Egyptian public will demand an end to support for US policies if they are finally allowed to have any influence over their own government.

This is in contrast to the last 15 years when US and Egyptian intelligence worked closely together to advance US and Israeli interests. The WSJ reports:  “Through Mr. Suleiman, Egypt became in 1995 the first country to cooperate with the U.S. program of rendition—sending terrorism suspects to third countries where they faced questioning and, in many cases, torture.”[21]

Edward S. Walker, Jr., a former US Ambassador to Egypt, complimented Suleiman as being “very bright, very realistic,” and “not squeamish” when it came to torturing terror suspects on behalf of the U.S.[22]

Suleiman was so eager to please his American intelligence counterparts, ABC News reported, “that when the CIA asked Suleiman for a DNA sample from a relative of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Suleiman offered the man’s whole arm instead.”[23]

Because the US could rely on Suleiman to promote the American agenda and protect American interests in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her strong support for Suleiman as the right man to oversee the transition of power after Mubarak was deposed. Clinton stated that, “There are forces at work in any society, particularly one that is facing these kind of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own agenda, which is why I think it’s important to follow the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by vice-president Omar Suleiman.”[24]

As further proof of American contempt for democracy, note how Clinton asserts that the implementation of any agenda other than the US/Suleiman agenda in Egypt constituted “derailing” or “overtaking” the process of the transition to a new government. Presumably she was referring to the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood or of the youth groups that led the mass protests against the Mubarak regime, both of which enjoy broad popular support amongst Egyptians.

US support for Suleiman managing the political transition further suggested how crucial it was for U.S.interests that no substantive, democratic changes take place in Egypt. Even though Mubarak was now gone, it would not matter because, as Emile Nakhleh, a former top Middle East analyst for the CIA noted: “Mubarak and Suleiman are the same person.”[25]

But while U.S. intelligence officials expressed nothing but appreciation for Suleiman while he was torturing prisoners and offering to hack off arms, they did express concern about the new Egyptian intelligence chief Muwafi, because he did something as shockingly terrible as . . . . . visit Syria, a fellow Arab nation and long time foe of the U.S. and Israel, during his first months on the job.

The WSJ asks: “What was Murad Muwafi, the new Egyptian spymaster, doing in Damascus? With whom was he meeting? ‘Honestly, we have our ideas, but we don’t know anything for certain,” said a senior US defense official, who didn’t elaborate on what those ideas might be. “I wouldn’t say we’re worried—not yet. Concerned is probably a better word.’”[26]


In conclusion, promoting democracy is not a priority ofU.S.foreign policy. Instead, recent events have shown that the US continues to support the various Arab dictators across the Gulf region and North Africa as they brutally suppress peaceful, popular democratic uprisings. American strategic planners and intelligence officials consider this necessary in order to make money selling weapons, ensure the flow of oil to the West, maintain military bases to project force in the Middle East, and enlist the support of Arab intelligence agencies in torturing suspects in the so-called War on Terror.

[1] “U.S. Wavers on Regime Change,” Wall Street Journal, Weekend Edition, March 5-6. Accessible online:

[2] “US Reviews Arms Sales Amid Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2011.  Accessible online at:

[3] “US Reviews Arms Sales Amid Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2011.  Accessible online at:

[4] “US Reviews Arms Sales Amid Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2011.  Accessible online at:

[5]“Bahrain Is Roiled By Return Of Shiite,” The Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2011. Accessible online at:

[6] “Violence Re-Emerges inBahrain,” The Wall Street Journal, Weekend Edition, March 12-13, 2011. Accessible online at:

[7] “Royal Rift, Absent Saudis BesetU.S.,” Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2011. See

[8] “Bahrain’s Crackdown Wins Neighbors’ Support,” Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2011. Accessible online at:

[9] “Death Toll Mounts in Gulf,” Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2011. Accessible online at:

[10] “Massacre in the Middle East: Horrific video captures Bahrain troops gunning down peaceful protesters in the street,” The Daily Mail (UK), February 20th 2011. Accessed online at:

[11]“Yemeni President Gets Power to Detain Foes,” The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2011. Accessible online at:

[12] “Yemen Leader Said to Plan Exit,” The Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2011. Accessible online at:

[13] “Middle East Unrest: 52 Shot Dead inYemen,” The Telegraph (UK), March 18, 2011. Accessible online at:

[14] “Senior Yemeni Officials Resign After 52 Demonstrators Killed,” The Telegraph (UK), 20 March, 2011. Accessible online at:

[15] “15 People Killed as Yemeni Troops Fire On Protesters,”USA Today, April 5, 2011. Accessible online at:

[16] “Yemen: 15 Dead and Hundreds Wounded in Taiz andHodeida to Suppress Protestors and to Stabilize What Remains of the Support for the Regime,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi (Arabic) Volume 22 – Issue 6784 Tuesday 5 April 2011. Accessible online at:\201144-044z500.htm

[17] “Family of Leader StallsYemen Talks,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2011. Accessible online at:

[18] “Power Change inYemen,” Inside Story, Al-Jazeera English Television, April 7, 2011. Accessible online at:

[19] “Egypt’s Top Spy a U.S. Concern,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2011. Accessible online at:

[20] “Egypt’s Top Spy a U.S. Concern,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2011. Accessible online at:

[21] “Egypt’s Top Spy a U.S. Concern,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2011. Accessible online at:

[22] “Who is Omar Suleiman,” The New Yorker Online, January 29, 2011, by Jane Mayer. Accessible online at:

[23]  “New Egyptian VP Ran Mubarak’s Security Team, Oversaw Torture,” ABC, February 1, 2011. Accessible online at:

[24]“Egypt Protests: Hillary Clinton Signals US Backing for Omar Suleiman,” The Guardian (UK), February 5, 2011. Accessible online at:

[25] “New Egyptian VP Ran Mubarak’s Security Team, Oversaw Torture,” ABC, February 1, 2011. Accessible online at:

[26] “Egypt’s Top Spy a U.S. Concern,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2011. Accessible online at: