President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his Black secretary of state, are so desperate to defend their now-discredited campaign to establish democratic rule in the Middle East, and in Central Asia, that they are evoking the history of the civil rights movement in the US. They are arguing that the people of these regions can gain democratic rights as Black Americans did as a result of their struggle for human rights. The evocation of the civil rights movement and the claim that they are democratising the Muslim regions are being made to erase the world's strong impression that the US oppresses its Black minority and supports repressive regimes in the Middle East. But these tactics are now being upgraded into a publicity campaign, led by Rice, in the southern states – the former home of slavery and of the younger Rice – with some political leaders of US allies invited to participate in order to attract international attention.
One of the foreign politicians invited to boost the US's propaganda campaign is Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, who accompanied Rice to Birmingham, Alabama, where she was born in1953 and spent the first twelve years of her life. One of the places where Straw, who stayed for three days as Rice's personal guest, was taken was her church (when she was a child) in Birmingham. In 1963 this church was bombed by racist terrorists (members of the Ku Klux Klan); four schoolchildren, one a friend of hers, were killed. On October 21, the day before the visit to the church, Rice became emotional during a speech in which she recalled the bombing and the racist war on her people. One of the things she recalled was how her father “had to bear his rifle, along with other men, and stand guard over our community.”
Continuing her speech, Rice said: “Throughout the south, when I was growing up the organised cruelty of segregation was embodied in custom, encompassed in law and enforced through brutality.” She also explained to journalists why she had invited Jack Straw to Alabama. “Not only is Birmingham my home, but Birmingham is also evocative of – I'll use the word – terror that attended the civil rights movement,” she said. Then she went on to explain the two main lessons the rest of the world should draw from this sad past: “First, that the US should havea certain humility when it talks about the spread of democracy and liberty, but also that freedom denied is not always denied. There comes a time when people rise up and get their freedom.” Naturally Straw endorsed her position, saying that “the example of American southern states will help this unbelievably condescending view that there is a chosen people across the world, mainly white, who are capable of enjoying democracy, and there is the rest of the world who are only capable of living in tyranny.”
This added emphasis on the lessons of segregation in the southern states and on the need for humility in convincing Muslims in ‘undemocratic regions' has come about because of strong international and local criticism of the way Black Americans in the south were left to their fate, by the US government and white politicians, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and other southern areas, and afterwards. The government wasted at least five days before taking action that, when it came, was shamefully inadequate. Media reports both in the West and in the US revealed how it was mostly Black Americans who bore the brunt of loss of life and property, adding that the main reason for the lack of action was that few white Americans were affected.
In the Independent (London, September 4), for instance, America was taken to task for the “shameful treatment of its Black citizens”. According to the articles, the images of New Orleansrefugees “exposed one of the ugliest sides of America, and one hopes that decent Americans feel both shame and rage that their country has sunk so low.” The article had no doubt that “the Washington elite” and southern states would have taken immediate action had the victims of the floods been white. A British Sunday newspaper, in an editorial the previous day, had made similar accusations, saying that “Katrina has exposed ugly truths about America... Four decades on from the civil rights movement, race remains the starkest dividing line in American society,” it concluded.
Coinciding with the criticism of racism by white Americans as a result of their behaviour during and after Hurricane Katrina was the publication of two books whose authors have reached similar conclusions about America's enduring racism, and the poor and beleaguered status of Black Americans. In When Affirmative Action Was White, Professor Ira Katznelson reveals that the average Black family in the US still holds only one tenth of the assets of an average white family, and that this gap has even been widened by deliberately exclusionary policies since the end of slavery. This is a grave charge; and it confirms the conclusions of other authors as long ago as 1944. Gunner Myrdal, an economist and a winner of the Nobel prize, concluded in his book The American Dilemma: the Problem of Modern Democracy (1944), that Americans' constitutional and democratic rights were made meaningless by the exclusion of Black Americans. Myrdal's conclusions were quoted in the media by journalists condemning the current racist policies and practices.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Rice's recent visit to Central Asia to call for the adoption of democratic systems by states like Kazakhstan has been greeted with derision. When she visited Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, she called for free and open elections, but even opposition groups did not take her seriously, accusing her of being motivated byWashington's interest in their country's oil wealth. She was forced to explain that “our oil interests in Central Asia do not conflict with the defence of freedoms.”
Clearly the US government's democratic charade is utterly discredited and cannot be made respectable by the posturing of politicians in Alabama or anywhere else. The world's peoples have more reason than ever to ignore the “world's sole superpower” in their plans and hopes for their future, and need have no qualms about doing so.