Dictatorships and Double Standards
Ever since the U.S. unveiled its radical new policy of bringing democracy to the Islamic world - whether through reform in Palestine or at the point of a gun in Iraq - the Bush Administration has come under attack for inconsistency and hypocrisy. Indeed, when our most critical ally in the war on terrorism, President Musharraf of Pakistan, gave himself dictatorial power for at least five years, that earned him but a few mild words of concern from the State Department.
The critics pounced. New Republic editor Peter Beinart assailed "the moral hypocrisy underlying America's demand for democracy in Palestine and Iraq" while "we simultaneously coddle the dictators in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan." Columnist Thomas Friedman complained that "the Bush team is advocating democracy only in authoritarian regimes that oppose America." Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt made the larger point: "The United States cannot fight, let alone win, a cold-war-style campaign for freedom in the Islamic world unless, as in the cold war, it is fully engaged throughout the world, committed to democracy in China as well as in Iraq, to peace in Chechnya as well as in the Middle East."
But wait. How did we win the cold war? We fought and won the cold war, and thus liberated tens of millions of people, precisely because we prudently, albeit reluctantly, tolerated unfreedom in certain places. Why? In order to win the larger battle for freedom on the global scale. Today we "coddle" Musharraf of Pakistan, Mubarak of Egypt, the Saudi princes. Yesterday we coddled Pinochet of Chile, Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, Mobutu of Zaire and a train of South Vietnamese generals.
Why? First, because, for all their faults, they were at the time better for their own people than those who would replace them. In those countries the alternative to autocracy was not democracy but often totalitarianism. We know all too well the history of the misery that followed the fall of our very flawed friends: genocide in Cambodia, boat people in Vietnam, theocratic thuggery in Iran, catastrophic war in Zaire.
Second, because we often need such dictators to win the larger struggle against a global threat to liberty--Nazism, communism, Islamic radicalism. Did we not, after all, join with Stalin, one of the great monsters of the 20th century, in order to defeat Hitler? Does anyone doubt not just the necessity but the morality of that alliance? It is the principle of the lesser evil. As Churchill once famously said, "If I were told that the devil were on poorer terms with Hitler, I should find myself making an alliance with hell."
Alliance with hell is justified as long as it is temporary. When Hitler was defeated, we stopped coddling Stalin. Forty years later, as communism ebbed, the U.S. helped overthrow Marcos and ease out Pinochet. We withdrew our support for those dictators once the two conditions that justify such alliances had disappeared: the global Soviet threat had receded and a domestic democratic alternative had emerged.
Such distinctions apply with equal force today. Musharraf is no democrat. Yet it is necessary to support him for now because he has enlisted Pakistan in our life-and-death struggle against radical Islam. And does anyone doubt that his overthrow would lead to more chaos and suffering within his country?
As for the Saudis, their regime is seriously corrupt and seriously repressive. Nonetheless, considering the neighborhood, it is hardly the worst. In time, we should want reform, perhaps even revolution, in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, social democrats are today in short supply there, and we cannot by sheer act of will create them.
Everything in its time. We cannot destabilize every regime at once and hope by some miracle to escape chaos. The idea that we betray our principles if we do not demand universal democracy--immediately and everywhere--is as ironic as it is Utopian. America is daily attacked for cowboy interventionism and arrogant unilateralism--then simultaneously attacked for not acting unilaterally to cleanse the planet of all tyranny.
Does that mean that we should do nothing to promote democracy in friendly dictatorships? No. It simply means that whereas in places like Iran and Iraq we push for democracy by provoking regime change, in friendly dictatorships we push for democracy only up to the point of instability. We dare not risk regime change--yet--because of the deluge that would follow.
The New York Times denounces America's "dancing with dictators." Guilty as charged. Dance we do. And without apology. With no more apology than Franklin Roosevelt offered when he reportedly said of Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza, "He may be a son of a bitch. But he's our son of a bitch."
Roosevelt was a grownup. He made choices. He slew his dragons one at a time. He understood that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. He understood that in an international arena populated by sons of bitches, you make your distinctions, or you die.
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