The Region: Working with dictatorships

Supporting them does not mean helping them repress genuine liberal democrats. That's where the line must be drawn.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Question from a reader: Do we really want to promoting the making of deals with "moderate dictators" or are we better urging them to turn their countries into liberal democracies? Response from this writer: What we "really want" to do is not the issue here. Political reality is what is important. Under normal and current conditions, North America and Europe are better off making deals with relatively moderate dictators while supporting liberal forces so they can play a role some day. The same principle applies for Israel. Today - except for Lebanon - there is no real liberal democratic alternative in the Arabic-speaking world regarding real political power. To understand why this is true, read my book The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East. The main threat to the West, to Israel, and even to the Arabs themselves are radical Islamists (Iran's regime, Hamas, Hizbullah, Muslim Brotherhoods, al-Qaida) and their radical nationalist allies (Syria particularly). Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrein, and - most problematically given its pro-Teheran stance - Qatar are our allies in this battle - despite all their problems, shortcomings, and appeasement behavior If you want to understand why these dictatorships are holding onto power and will be removed only by radical Islamists in the foreseeable future, read my book The Tragedy of the Middle East. Against the fascists, the US and UK had to ally with Stalin; against the Communists, with many dictators. Those who are going to engage seriously in politics must deal with this reality. At present, there is no serious prospect of turning these countries into liberal democracies, certainly not from the outside. Liberal forces are simply too weak. Democratic institutions don't exist. Anti-democratic Islamists would win elections and never bother to hold them again. This is the situation that has been seen recent years. WHEN A DEMOCRATIC upsurge does come along, as currently is taking place in non-Arab Iran, it deserves support from Westerners and verbal encouragement from Western governments. There is certainly a huge difference between the Iranian demonstrators and the current regime. True, there is far less difference between the opposition candidates and the current rulers. But that margin is important. Would a less extreme Islamist ruling Iran get better public relations' advantages in the West while developing nuclear weapons? Sure. But so what. The West isn't going to take on the current regime anyway. Public relations are not going to affect Iran getting nuclear weapons at this point. It would certainly be better to have a leadership less eager to engage in war, less likely to use nuclear weapons, and more cautious in its international behavior. Equally, it would be preferable to have a regime which had a wider gap between a radical ideology and a more pragmatic practice. Finally, it would be nicer to have a regime that had to devote more of its time and attention to improving its domestic living standards than to foreign adventures. Unfortunately, such options are not very available in the Arabic-speaking world. They may be, today, in Iran. But again that is Iran, not the Arabic-speaking world. Is Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak or Jordan's King Abdallah preferable to Islamist states ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood? Is Iraq's current regime preferable to a radical Islamist state under Iranian patronage? Is Lebanon under the March 14 Sunni-Christian-Druze alliance preferable to Lebanon under hizbullah? Is the Palestinian Authority preferable to Hamas? How many milliseconds did it take you to answer that list of questions? WORKING WITH the dictatorships does not mean supporting them when they repress genuine liberal democrats. That's where the line must be drawn. Yet why should the West help bring anti-Western Islamist groups to power that would create even worse dictatorships and set off bloody wars? Nor does working with the dictatorships mean being naïve about them and their policies. Of course, the Palestinian Authority is going to incite violence against Israel-though it will also stop many of the resulting terrorists-but won't make a lasting comprehensive peace with Israel. Certainly, Mubarak's government will take American money and then order its media to preach anti-Americanism. The problem with much of Western strategy today is that while claiming to be realistic, it is dangerously romantic. It often seems more concerned in conciliating with the worst extremists than in preserving and strengthening the less dangerous and repressive - though admittedly corrupt and incompetent-incumbents. Incidentally, this is precisely the conclusion reached by the overwhelming majority of genuine Arab liberals. They hate the existing governments and are all too aware of their flaws. But they prefer the current rulers to bringing into their own homes the nightmare of Islamist Iran, Taliban Afghanistan, or Hamas Gaza. Who can blame them for reaching this conclusion? They prefer staying in the frying pan to leaping into the fire. In contrast, in the West, the prevalent current thinking often urges jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Of course, it is easier to advocate such a step for those whose feet won't be the ones getting burnt. There are good reasons why there are so many sayings about making a distinction between the horrible and the less objectionable though hardly ideal choice: The best is the enemy of the good. The lesser of two evils is preferable. Politics is the art of the possible. Bad strategy is the vandalism of the dangerously ignorant.