Southern Politics

What U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says that she wants from the Obama administration is a foreign policy of consistent toughness toward repressive authoritarian regimes. On October 27, 2011, she complained that the administration talking tough to the governments of Libya and Yemen but engaging the government of Cuba.[i] Coming from a Cuban-American who represents the Miami-Dade County District that is home to a large Cuban-American population, that is easily dismissed as yet another regrettable case of ethnic foreign policy lobbying. However she criticized the Obama administration again on January 13, 2011, this time for engaging the government of Burma, calling the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Burma/Myanmar “grossly premature.”[ii] So perhaps she does believe in a consistent “one size fits all” diplomacy prioritizing promoting democracy and protecting human rights.

Official House of Representatives portrait of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida

Perhaps. The problem with that is Ros-Lehtinen’s lack of consistency in condemning repression. With respect to the brutal repression in the island nation of Bahrain that began with a declaration of martial law on March 15th, she has been impressively circumspect. According to the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, between March 21st and April 15th, Bahraini security forces shot to death dozens of prod-democracy protesters, arrested nearly 3000 people, tortured hundreds, and tortured five to death.[iii] Among the tortured were doctors, nurses and paramedics who treated wounded protesters. Several of the doctors were subsequently prosecuted by the Bahraini government. Imagine if you will how different Ros-Lehtinen’s response would have been if this violent nightmare had taken place in Cuba rather than Bahrain.

This silence was no mere oversight on the part of a House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair who is busy protecting freedom elsewhere in the world. The reason for Ros-Lehtinen’s human rights double standard was revealed in her March 1, 2011 Opening Statement in a Committee Hearing with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.[iv] “We must maintain firm ties with our allies, and enemies must remain clearly identified,” she instructed, “I hope this administration can tell who’s who.” Here is the punch line: “We should not associate the protests in Jordan and Bahrain with events transpiring in Tripoli, Cairo, and Beirut.” It would seem that the much brutalized Bahraini pro-democracy protesters fall into the category of ‘enemies.’

If true, that would make the Bahraini government our ‘ally.’ The reason Ros-Lehtinen probably thinks of it that way is that the Persian Gulf island nation is host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the Bahraini government is hostile to Iran. Unfortunately the Bahraini government is a sultanate supported by the roughly 10% of the population who are Sunni Arabs and imposes a sectarian apartheid, lording it over the restive Shi’a Arab and South Asian immigrant majority. That the Arab Spring protests in Manama were no less legitimate than those in Tripoli or Cairo is obvious to any observer who really believes in democracy and human rights.

How can such a glaring contradiction be explained? The best answer is that Ros-Lehtinen does not view democracy and human rights as ends but as means. They are ideas deployed to divide the world into allies and enemies. She is willing to sacrifice Bahraini freedom and lives for temporary geopolitical advantage in the Persian Gulf. It is an old story. In the 1950s and 1960s repressive communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe were deemed intolerable but repressive fascist dictatorships in Spain and Portugal were embraced as allies. In the 1980s the leftist revolutionary government in Nicaragua was deemed intolerable but the rightist military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala were embraced as allies.

There are two problems with the tradeoff that Ros-Lehtinen is demanding. The first and most obvious is that hypocrisy squanders whatever moral authority the U.S. gains by standing up for democracy and human rights elsewhere. The second and less obvious is that it is based on a Miami-Dade Country-centric geopolitics. If a trade-off for geopolitical advantage is necessary in the Middle East, then why not in Asia? After all, engaging rather than talking tough to the government of Burma/Myanmar seems to be successfully peeled away one of China’s more important client states. China and not Iran is the principal international rival of the U.S. Although it might not look like from the perspective of Florida’s 18th District, the world is bigger than just the Caribbean or the Middle East.

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[i] U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. Committee News. October 27, 2011.

[ii] Julian Pecquet. “Top Republicans at odds over President Obama’s overture to Burma.” The Hill. January 13, 2012.

[iii] Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. November 23, 2011.

[iv] U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Ros-Lehtinen Opening Statement at Hearing with Secretary Clinton.” March 1, 2011.

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Image: Official House of Representatives portrait of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida (public domain) via Commons.Wikimedia.org.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.