Mighty fine words

In his speech this week promoting democracy in the Middle East, President Bush was rather selective in his criticism– coming down a lot harder on Iran and Syria than on our “moderate Arab friends” in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But I did appreciate these reamarks which, if he means what he says, could have quite extraordinary implications:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.

Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.

As John Wayne must have said in one of his films, “Those are mighty fine words, mister…” But if Bush is really declaring an end to the era of brutal realpolitik, of “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch,” that will be something to celebrate.

The candidacy of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt in Sunday’s election for president of Guatemala reminds us that some of the worst years of that era are not so far behind us.

In his speech Bush praised Preisdent Ronald Reagan as a herald of democracy in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But writing in The Washington Post, Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch reminds us that Reagan stood with Rios Montt in the early 1980s and praised him as “a man of great personal integrity” who was “totally dedicated to democracy,” and dismissed charges of atrocities in Guatemala as a “bum rap.”

As Reagan spoke, Rios Montt’s troops were preparing to march on a village called Las Dos Erres for a counterinsurgency operation that was to include the rape of young women, smashing of infants’ heads and the interment of more than 160 civilians — some while still alive — in the village well.

Now the skeletons have been exhumed from the well in Las Dos Erres, as well as from hundreds of other clandestine cemeteries scattered throughout the countryside. A truth commission has documented tens of thousands of abuses committed by the Guatemalan state, as well as a much smaller number committed by leftist guerrillas. And in 1999 President Clinton issued a public apology in Guatemala for the U.S. role in supporting that country’s abusive regimes.

Rios Montt of course should be standing trial for the crimes of his regime, not running for president of his country. Let’s hope he loses as badly as he deserves to.

Update: He did, apparently. In addition he’ll lose his immunity from prosecution for genocide.