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The Problem of the Friendly Tyrant

February 3rd, 2011 - 7:40 pm

We’ve had many alliances with friendly tyrants, from Stalin to Papa Doc, from Mubarak to Pinochet, from the shah to the Saudi royal family.  It’s not an easy embrace.  If you’re the American president you know, or should know, that it’s only a matter of time before the American people — or at least a big chunk of “public opinion” — turn against the tyrant and demand that we support his domestic enemies, real and imagined.  You don’t want that, since you know that in the ensuing political free-for-all you will be stained with the same spray of slime that besmirches the tyrants.

On the other hand, if you pull the plug on the tyrant, you send two very dangerous messages. You tell all our allies that we’re weak and unreliable — which discourages them, along with all the would-be friends and allies who are trying to figure out what to do. And you tell all our enemies that we are weak and will run at the first sign of trouble.  For extras, if the abandoned tyrant should win, he won’t be a great friend of ours again.

That’s a bad parlay.

Many people are now saying that it is always wrong for America to support dictators.  “Always” is too much.  Was it wrong to join the Soviets in the war against the Axis?  Would it have been better to sacrifice thousands of American lives in order to avoid the moral stain on our standard?  Are tactics to be trashed in favor of a single strategy?  As I keep saying, we are often compelled to choose between various evils, and it is a legitimate choice.  It’s the way the world generally works, in fact;  it’s rare to have a fully attractive and morally impeccable option.

Plus, while tyrants are contrary to our national DNA, there are dictators and dictators.  Some can be convinced to democratize, and those chances are increased if they trust us and are willing to work with us.  One way to get from dictatorship to democracy — and that is our national mission — is to get friendly tyrants to liberalize their polities.  Peaceful transitions have been accomplished, and, by the way, in societies that were widely believed to be intrinsically, almost genetically, authoritarian.  To take two:  Taiwan and Spain, both of which democratized from the top down.

Tyrants don’t like this process at all, obviously.  It drains their power, and may even cost them their job.  And they worry about darker consequences, like standing trial for various criminal acts, from repression to corruption.   That’s why Franco laid the groundwork for democracy, but left the actual process to his successors.  But the Taiwanese actually did it;  the ruling party created a system that was guaranteed to remove the party from power, perhaps only temporarily but perhaps for a long time.  It could not have happened without American help and perhaps (I don’t know this, I only suspect it) promises of safe haven if things got very bad.

We should have insisted that the shah liberalize Iran.  Yes, I know he did some of it, and I know that Iran was — by orders of magnitude — the most liberal and open society in the Muslim Middle East.  But he stopped that process in its tracks, thereby provoking the insurrection that produced the Islamic Revolution.

We should have insisted that Mubarak liberalize Egypt, and every now and then an American president or secretary of state said so, but then we backed off.  Now we have a serious crisis with no “good” solution.  What to do?

I think the answer is obvious:  we have to stick with Mubarak, all the way down if he is indeed going down.  We can talk about reform  as much as we wish, but it’s as crazy to try to institute reform in the middle of an insurrection as it is to raise taxes in the middle of a depression.  But we have to say — above all, privately — that we’re with him, and that while we want serious change in the future we will not abandon him.

That is the right policy, even if Mubarak goes down.  If we do that, we can say to his successors:  “We were loyal to him because he was a good ally, and we do not abandon loyal allies.  If you are good allies, we will be loyal to you too, even at your darkest hour.”

If we bail, then both our other allies and Mubarak’s successors will know that America is not loyal, cannot be relied upon, and thus that it is a mistake to cater to the Americans’ wishes (about democracy, for example).

So, as history unfolds through paradoxes, we have identified another one:  if you really want to advance democracy, it will sometimes be necessary to stand foursquare behind a dictator.

If we had pursued our national mission for the past many decades, we might have avoided the necessity of doing this unpleasant thing.  But here we are.  If we jump ship now, as it seems we are, it is odds-on to make things worse.

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