The Cable

Senior House Democrat: The era of supporting autocrats is over

As protests rage in Bahrain and Libya, the U.S. government's stance toward democracy in the Arab world is evolving, even in Congress. On Wednesday, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said that the United States must abandon its decades-old habit of supporting autocrats.

"The old days of ‘as long as we can make a positive relationship with the autocrat who's running the place, then we are friends with the country' are dead and gone," Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) told a group of reporters over breakfast on Wednesday.

"We have to be much more interested in trying to get the actual populations in those countries to be supportive of us," Smith said. "What we have to start thinking about in the foreign policy establishment is what shifts in our foreign policy do we need to make to target the populations."

Smith said that over the last decades, the U.S. policy of supporting regimes that abused power turned many Arabs against the United States and bolstered often violent opposition movements, some of which could now be poised to take power.

"It was a long term bad strategy... We were winning the battle but losing the war," Smith said. "There's a reason we opted in the past for the ‘Let's just make friends with the autocrat' approach. It's much easier."

But Smith, who represents the district where the U.S. Army base of Fort Lewis is located, defended military aid to countries including Jordan, Pakistan, and Israel as useful tools of American influence.

Smith also said that military aid to Cairo must continue while the Egyptian military undertakes the process of reform. "Where Egypt is concerned, it's going to depend on what their government ultimately looks like," Smith said. "Right now, today? Yes."

Smith admitted the difficulty of supporting popular Arab movements while also defending U.S. interests, laying out several concerns he had about the largest and most organized Egyptian opposition group -- the Muslim Brotherhood.

"One of the things to understand about [the Muslim Brotherhood's approach in Egypt... their ultimate goals haven't changed," Smith said. "I don't think the people of Egypt want to trade one totalitarian group for another... we have a definite interest in making sure that doesn't happen."

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