The press has been scrambling this weekend to keep up with the fortunes of Egypt’s Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. First it looked like he’d been named as interim prime minister of Egypt. Then it turned out it wasn’t a done deal. Whichever way that goes, the renewed spotlight on ElBaradei is inspiring comments about his erstwhile democratic credentials — for instance, The Washington Post web site has an item referring to Elbaradei’s “democratic idealism” and his “democratic credibility.”
ElBaradei has two main credentials. He worked at the United Nations for almost 30 years, capping that career with his stint from 1997-2009 as director-general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. And in 2005, together with the IAEA, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Neither of these provides any evidence of democratic principles. The Nobel Prize is a famous label, but it has been given to such a wide and utterly contradictory range of winners — from terrorist Yasser Arafat to Chinese democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo — that it could mean almost anything. The winner defines the prize, not the prize the winner. In the case of ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize committee, consisting of five members of the Norwegian parliament, picked a UN official during a year in which the UN, beset by the Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq, badly wanted a boost. It’s hard to find any other reason why at that juncture the Nobel committee was suddenly inspired to celebrate ElBaradei and the agency he ran “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes.” ElBaradei’s tenure as head of the IAEA had already spanned Pakistan’s nuclear breakout in 1998 as well as signs (which he preferred to ignore) of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program; and in 2006, the year after he got his Nobel, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.
As for the efforts of ElBaradei to stop that sort of thing — forget about it. As head of the IAEA he behaved more like Iran’s man in Vienna. As I wrote in a 2011 article article on ElBaradei, he was “running interference for years against referral of of Iran’s nuclear program from the IAEA to the UN Security Council.” According to former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, ElBaradei “frequently altered the reports of IAEA inspectors,” editing their findings in ways that “gave Iran every benefit of the doubt.” One of ElBaradei’s finals acts in his UN post, in the fall of 2009, was to make a visit to Iran. There he assured Iran’s despots that the IAEA had no interest in their missile program, and — evidently oblivious to the reasons for what were already three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions resolutions on Iran — he stated: “As I have said many times, and I continue to say today, the Agency has no concrete proof that there is an ongoing weapons program in Iran.” He flattered his Tehran hosts that after he retired as head of the IAEA, “I would be very happy to come here as many times as I can.” (Within months of ElBaradei’s retirement from the IAEA, his successor, Yukiya Amano, produced a report warning of signs that Iran might be working on “the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”)
Was ElBaradei’s fawning over Tehran nothing more than some isolated quirk of a democratic idealist? Not a chance. As I further noted in the article linked above, “Elbaradei’s hallmark was contempt for the world’s democracies, notably the U.S. and Israel; and an affinity for some of the world’s worst tyrannies, notably Iran, Syria and North Korea.” When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, in 2006, ElBaradei oozed sympathy with totalitarian Pyongyang, calling its nuclear detonation “a cry for help.” When the Israelis in 2007 destroyed a clandestine nuclear reactor nearing completion in Syria and built with North Korean help, ElBaradei wrist-slapped Syria for not being more transparent. The harsh judgment he reserved for democratic Israel, accusing the Israeli government of breaking international law — though in truth, Israel with that strike on the Syrian reactor had done far more to protect the world from nuclear proliferation than anything ever done by Nobel laureate ElBaradei.
This is not the record of a democrat. True, ElBaradei called for and welcomed the overthrow in 2011 of Egypt’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak. But ElBaradei’s record over many years suggests that at best he is an opportunist who likes to choose from his own catalogue of despot-friendly policies and fictions. At worst, while piling up his international laurels in Oslo and Vienna, he behaved like a man in the pocket of some of the world’s worst dictators, who also happened to be collaborators with each other in rogue pursuit of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them — North Korea, Syria and Iran. That is not to accuse ElBaradei of breaking any UN rules or Austrian laws; it is quite bad enough that his own brand of honesty over the years has entailed sympathy and de facto support for some of the world’s most dangerous and repugnant regimes. Whatever ElBaradei might be saying these days, however fluent his English or prolific his photo-ops over the years with Western celebrities, could we please stop calling him a democratic idealist?