Neocon “Human Rights” Enthusiasts Notably Silent on Tunisia

Imagine this: crowds of angry young people gather for protests against the authoritarian ruler of a Muslim-majority country. The government undertakes an often-brutal repression of the demonstrators that leaves dozens — and possibly more — dead, all while rumors swirl that detained activists have been tortured in prison. Despite the brutal crackdown, the government proves unable to tamp down the protests, which continue to build to a crescendo.

Sounds like Iran in June 2009, right? But the description could equally apply to the current events in Tunisia, where authoritarian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has been forced into a political retreat despite a vicious repression of protesters that human rights groups estimate has left 35 to 40 people dead. This is not to say that the issues at stake are the same in Tunisia as they were in Iran, of course — but the scale of the repression is comparable and some of the images coming out of the protests are strikingly similar.

One major difference, however, is the coverage the two sets of protests have received from America’s self-proclaimed champions of human rights on the neoconservative right. During Iran’s repression of the Green Movement, of course, the neoconservative blogosphere went into overdrive as commentators (not to mention Commentators) competed over who could issue the most pious and high-flown statement in support of the protesters. Even as the Obama administration issued steadily more vocal criticisms of the Iranian regime, neocons excoriated Obama for his alleged callousness in failing to support the protesters — never mind that the Green Movement made clear that that it had no desire to be enlisted as a U.S. proxy and that it was vehemently opposed to the neocons’ bomb-Iran agenda.

On Tunisia? Crickets. The Weekly Standard and National Review have had nothing whatsoever to say about the Tunisia situation, nor have the American Enterprise Institute or Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Commentary has taken note of the situation only in one brief blog post that dismisses the demonstrators as “rioters” and warns that the protests could make Tunisia’s youth “susceptible to the forces of Islamic extremism.” (As activists in the West Bank have long been aware, the easiest way to go from “protester” to “rioter” in the eyes of the neocon media is to demonstrate against a U.S. ally.)

What explains this glaring disparity? The answer is too obvious to need much elaboration: Iran is a rival of the U.S., and more particularly Israel, whereas Tunisia’s President Ben Ali has been a U.S. collaborator in the war on terror. The hypocrisy of neoconservative enthusiasm for “human rights” is by no means a new story, but it’s always good to get fresh illustrations.

[UPDATE:] I see that Marc Lynch has made some of the same points in more depth.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.