US foreign policy conducted behind closed doors has allowed dictators to whip up anti-American sentiment among their people while still accepting US dollars and hardware, writes Ahmed Rashid.
Washington's secret deals allow 'allies' to play a double game
As the revolt by the Arab masses has spread, there has been much hand-wringing in western capitals about how to deal with dictators in the future and much self-flagellation about the US and Europe's failures to predict the anger of the Arab peoples much earlier.
There are demands for a more ethical foreign policy by western liberals that punishes authoritarianism, but that is hardly realistic when the world is still full of dictatorships and assets like oil, minerals, food and other things the West wants. Ostracising bad regimes as a kind of punishment can also lead to ignoring millions of ordinary people, while pushing authoritarian regimes towards reform is really only feasible when they are down and out.
What is really needed is greater transparency in the foreign policy agreements that western nations strike with authoritarian states. Agreements need to be made public so that the people and not just the rulers know what they are getting themselves into.
The Cold War was bad enough with the US and the Soviet Union striking secret deals for bases and listening posts in nations that were ruled by dictators - many of them in the Muslim world.
However, the post-September 11 world has been even worse. Mubarak's Egypt, Ben Ali's Tunisia, Musharraf's Pakistan, Karimov's Uzbekistan, King Abdullah's Jordan and many other states signed highly secret and immensely controversial agreements with the US and Europe that involved catching, holding and torturing al Qa'eda prisoners, or allowing hundreds of their citizens who became "the disappeared" to be picked up by western intelligence agencies.
The secret pacts extended far further, such as giving unprecedented access to the CIA in these countries, massive secret arms deals often at the cost of the country's developing economy, training programmes for local intelligence and para-military forces that were often used by the regime to crush local dissent and more. The local intelligentsia and media, let alone the masses, were and still are completely unaware of what has been signed and for what ends.
Meanwhile, the authoritarian rulers have basked in the sunlight of being an ally of the West and of receiving western support, arms and money, while the very secrecy of the deals still allowed the rulers to rail against the West to their own people if they needed to do so for their own political survival.
In March 2002, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan signed a deal in Washington with the Bush administration, promising to "intensify the democratic transformation" of Uzbek society, hold free and fair elections and stop the routine human rights abuses his regime conducts to this day. In return he would receive US aid and training for his army and intelligence services.
It was a public agreement covered in the US media, but there was no insistence by Washington that Mr Karimov actually publicise the agreement at home and make his commitments known to the Uzbek people. He never did so. To this day most Uzbeks still do not know about the agreement. That is how dictators have got away with worse than murder.
Pakistan is even a more tragic case in point. After September 11, the military regime under then-president Pervez Musharraf signed numerous secret agreements with the Americans that have never been made public. This lack of transparency allows the army to whip up anti-Americanism whenever it chooses - usually to avoid taking the blame. Washington then wonders why anti-Americanism is growing in Pakistan.
The prime example is the secret agreement for the use of US drones whose missiles kill al Qa'eda and Taliban leaders inside Pakistan. Many of the drones take off from inside Pakistan at a US-run airbase - obviously with the full permission of the Pakistan military. Yet the army and its Interservices Intelligence (ISI) frequently organises demonstrations by Islamic fundamentalists or briefs the local media to condemn drone attacks which infringe upon Pakistan's sovereignty.
What sovereignty, when it has been already secretly given away? And the civilian government of the Pakistan Peoples Party honours the secret agreements of the previous military regime which they publicly deny.
The US secretaries of defence and state have in recent days made impassioned pleas to the world for more use of diplomacy, less use of military force and a faster, larger reform agenda for the Arab world.
But they have not talked about real transparency in US foreign policy that would force state-to-state agreements to be made public - especially to the peoples in whose name they are being signed. The US and Europe must share the blame for allowing dictatorship to thrive, not just by embracing them for the sake of oil or strategic necessity, but by conducting secret relationships and deals that make them unaccountable to their own people.
Sadly, the incoming regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and soon Libya will find themselves saddled with secret agreements that their previous rulers made and that they now will have to honour and keep secret.
The Arab revolt signals that we are at the end of an era. The 20th century way of conducting state-to-state relations, secret diplomacy and bilateral agreements must come to an end if we are to really see the demise of dictatorship. The way forward is greater transparency, not pretending dictatorships are something other than what they are.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. His latest book is Descent into Chaos