When elections are free and fair - broadly speaking

US foreign policy and any claim to moral leadership have plummeted under the current U.S. administration - never more so than in the case of Iran

In front of the camera: US State Department spokeswoman Jen Pskai
Charles Crawford
On 22 May 2013 08:59

One of the problems modern public servants face is the tyranny of the PC. When I joined the FCO back in 1979 there were far fewer words sloshing around. Every document had to be started from scratch.

Yes, some familiar phrases were used to sum up policy: “Yugoslavia is a pillar of stability in the Balkans”; “Our bilateral relations with Indonesia are cordial but lack substance”. But work typically had the fresh, direct, and, above all, terse quality that came from the terror in every diplomat’s heart of the prospect of asking the typing pool to do something in full yet again.

Nowadays things are completely different, and completely worse. Word numbers have inflated exponentially as it is so easy to produce them. In fact it’s harder not to produce them. Huge slabs of text can be cut and pasted to and fro between documents with scarcely a glance as to how far these words might have become stale or unwise. And while all that is going on, and busy deadlines have to be met, actual thinking dwindles about what those words mean.

Thus we now have the listless expression: ‘free and fair elections’. Back in the early 1990s this used to mean something – a sort of political kitemark showing that countries in transition away from authoritarianism had made real progress and achieved a substantively respectable level of pluralism.

Large numbers of expensive election observers were sent to check that technical standards for free and fair elections were being respected. These initiatives made a difference. For a while.

Gradually things started to change. Without anyone actually admitting as much, it became politically incorrect except in the most horrible cases to conclude that, all things considered, elections in the country concerned really had not been free and fair.

Why did this happen? Partly because any international election observation mission reaching that result would (bizarrely) be seen to have failed, to the point of encouraging other countries not to invite in election observers.

And partly because querulous Western leaders fretted that a clear-cut international condemnation of even obviously corrupt elections might create new instability. People could die! And our election observation processes might be blamed! Plus budgets are tight: think of the expense that we all might incur if there is another conflict in this fleapit. Better the devil we know?

So now the idea of ‘free and fair elections’ has been massively devalued. It boils down to “If you have to cheat, don’t overdo it”. Or we’ll give you even more aid.

Nonetheless, we all thought that at least the most horrible and blatant cases of ‘unfreeness’ and unfairness merited some stern words of condemnation. Alas that hope too has been dashed – by, of all people, the Obama/Kerry State Department.

Iran has come up with a bold new plan for its forthcoming presidential elections: to ban women candidates. Any normal person might think that if anything makes a nationwide election a priori unfair it is excluding half the country’s population from competing equally as candidates in clear breach of its own constitution.

Hapless US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about the US response to this absurd decision. And, amazingly, she twisted and turned to avoid giving any sort of view on it. Watch the whole grisly exchange here.

The clip is worth watching in full, to marvel as she scrambles to find the place in her briefing notes when the question is posed, then has nothing to fall back on except ludicrous clichés and evasions. The weary journalists perk up, seemingly unable to believe the rubbish they are hearing:

QUESTION: But I mean why – it seems astounding that this Department – I mean, what if they decided to exclude, as this country once did, not merely women but black people? Would that be acceptable to you? That’s just their choice; they do it any way they want and you’re not going to stand up for democratic rights?

MS. PSAKI: I think we pretty broadly stand up for democratic rights from this building.

QUESTION: Just not for Iranian women, apparently…

MS. PSAKI:  … More specifically, in terms of how candidates are selected, we don’t weigh in on specific candidates, of course, as the Government of Iran is picking them. But broadly, yes, we would like women to be participating at every level.

This exchange shows just how far US foreign policy and any claim to moral leadership have declined under this administration.

The line used by Ms Psaki is cowardly and ridiculous. It is made all the more so by her psittacosic insistence that the US does want to see free and fair elections “in Iran and around the world”. It turns out that when elections are tritely unfree and unfair in Iran or anywhere else where the crudest gender apartheid is being imposed, the US has given up any willingness even to say so.

How the world’s dictators and authoritarians must be chortling in their joy. They get this existential policy concession gift-wrapped from Washington, delivered by value-free drafting and a gormless spokesperson. Without even having to ask!

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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