Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Better hostile democracies than friendly dictatorships

The democratic order that has reigned in Western Europe since World War II, and that has since expanded to include the Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, owes its existence to our wartime alliance with one of the most murderous totalitarian regimes in human history. It was Stalin’s Soviet Union, heavily supported militarily and economically by the US and Britain, that bore the brunt of the fighting that destroyed Hitler’s Third Reich, thereby enabling the liberation of Western Europe from Nazism. In the cause of this war-effort, Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt befriended Stalin and hobnobbed with him; their medias extolled the virtues of his regime. It was not a pretty thing to do, as Stalin’s Western-backed forces carried out genocidal crimes of their own against Chechens, Crimean Tartars and other Soviet subject nationalities during and after the war. It defeated one mortal enemy of the democratic world, only to raise another in its place; one that took nearly another half-century to bring down. Yet history has generally looked favourably upon our wartime alliance with Stalin, as one born of necessity.

In the sixty-six years that have followed the defeat of Hitler, the dilemma has been posed again and again, as successive Western leaders have felt compelled to ally with one monster to contain or defeat another. Nixon brokered a rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China so as better to contain the Soviet Union. Henry Scoop Jackson quashed a Congressional motion directed against Marcelo Caetano’s Portuguese dictatorship as the price for the use of a base in Portugal’s Azores Islands to transport military supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed crucial support from Chile’s Augusto Pinochet during the Falklands War of 1982 against Argentina’s Galtieri dictatorship.

These dealings with dictators often burn the hands of the Western statesmen who engage in them, or return to haunt them.The US tilted in favour of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Khomenei’s Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; Donald Rumsfeld’s handshake with the Iraqi tyrant during his 1983 visit to Baghdad was widely publicised by his enemies during the 2000s. The US’s alliance with Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan collapsed following US criticism of Karimov’s massacre of protesters at Andijan in 2005. Most recently, Tony Blair’s dealings with the now-embattled Muammar Gaddafi are being loudly trumpeted by his critics, despite the benefits they brought to Britain and the US in the War on Terror.

Those ready to condemn Blair over Gaddafi should ask themselves whether they would equally have condemned Churchill for his support for Stalin in the 1940s. Or whether Britain was wrong to go to the aid of Ioannis Metaxas’s fascist dictatorship in Greece, when it was attacked by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in 1940. Or whether we would have done better to have left undemocratic Kuwait to Saddam Hussein in 1990. The reality is that, so long as the world is largely made up of tyrannical regimes, the West will be forced to collaborate with some of them. The alternative would be for the US and Britain to abandon foreign policy altogether and become like Switzerland or Sweden. Nobody should need pointing out that it was the US and Britain, not Switzerland or Sweden, that defeated first Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union.

There is, however, no getting away from the fact that collaboration with dictatorships is discrediting and morally corrupting for the Western statesmen who engage in it. It may be imposed by necessity, but it should not be chosen by preference. Nor do such alliances work well in the long run. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab tyrannies may be long-standing allies of the US, but it was they that spawned al-Qaeda – led by the Saudi Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Pakistan, with its dysfunctional parliamentary system and history of periodic military rule, may be a traditional US ally, but its weakness in the face of Islamic extremism and the collusion of parts of its security forces with the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan makes it a much graver security risk for the West today than traditionally pro-Moscow but stable democratic India.

Conversely, though the US may have prickly relations with some of the world’s democratic states, most notably in Latin America, these states do not pose any major security risk. Hostile president Daniel Ortega of democratic Nigaragua may cause annoyance with his support for Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia, but this cannot be compared with the security threat posed by some of our own ‘allies’. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez may be more of a threat, with his collaboration with Russia and Iran, but he is the exception that proves the rule, since he is an authoritarian demagogue who has eroded Venezuelan democracy since coming to power. Even so, it is not Venezuela, any more than Brazil or Argentina, that is generating a global jihad directed against the West. Authoritarian Latin America did generate radical anti-Western movements (or radical movements perceived as anti-Western), from Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement to FARC, the Shining Path and the Sandinistas; the region has ceased to do so as it has democratised. And at the end of the day, we can live with the hostility of an Ortega or even a Chavez, but God save us from allies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan !

The current upheavals in the Arab world have been variously described in terms of the fall of America’s Middle Eastern empire, or the revival of Arab self-determination. Yet ’empire’ – if that is indeed what the US exercises in the region – is a burden not a privilege, and should be relinquished just as a soon as there are Arab democracies capable of assuming responsibility for the region, even if we do not always agree with how they do it. Nor should Israel fear this change; it was dictatorships that attacked it in 1973, as it was a dictatorship that attacked our Falkland Islands in 1982. Today, democratic Argentina pursues its dispute over our ownership of the islands by peaceful means. Israel’s best chance for permanent security lies in the democratisation of the region – even if a democratic Egypt proves to be at times less straightforward to deal with than was Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Better hostile democracies than friendly dictatorships. Yet Arab democracies do not have to be hostile. We would do well to assist the Arab struggle against the ancien regime as best we can, so as best to ensure good relations with the Arab leaders who will emerge from this struggle. In Libya, this means doing our best to hasten the complete defeat of Gaddafi’s already moribund tyranny and restricting its ability to slaughter its own citizens, through the imposition of a no-fly zone. We cannot ensure that the battle for democracy in the Arab world will be won, but we can stop fearing its victory. For its victory would represent for us a burden lifted, not privileges lost.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

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Sunday, 27 February 2011 Posted by | Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Victory to the Egyptian revolution !

President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have revealed the true face of so-called ‘Western imperialism’ over the past couple of days – not so much diabolical or machiavellian, but small minded and wishy-washy. It should be obvious to all that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is finished, and that even if he succeeds somehow in retaining power, he is too discredited and too clearly rejected and despised by his own people to serve any further purpose as a supposed ‘ally’ of the West. Why, then, the unwillingness to solidarise with the Egyptian people who have taken to the streets to overthrow him; why the reluctance to ask him to step down ? They may be afraid of what will come after; they should rather be afraid of how a democratic Egypt, if it emerges, will remember the West’s failure to support its establishment. To talk of ‘reform’ in Egypt today is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s a bit late for that now; Western leaders would do better to show that they are on the side of the Egyptian people in their struggle against tyranny.

The Arab world and the Middle East have long presented a sorry story of dictatorship, political backwardness and religious extremism. Now, finally, something is occurring in the political sphere about which Arabs, Muslims and others in the region can justly feel proud. In the Egyptian popular revolt to overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship, a kind of politics is being born that can inspire those in the region who have so long been lacking in positive sources of inspiration. The idea that we should withhold our full solidarity with the Egyptian protesters because we can’t imagine anything better than a corrupt and discredited despot is, quite frankly, disgraceful and embarrassing. Mubarak and his fellow pro-Western dictators are not the alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists; rather, the dictators and the Islamists are two sides of the same coin, feeding off and rejuvenating one another. The status quo is not the safe option; it is the source of the Islamist menace that has produced al-Qaeda and 9/11. Undemocratic Egypt has been a particular incubator of Islamic extremism; the system produced Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. We shouldn’t be afraid of what may come after Mubarak; we should be afraid of the status quo continuing.

Of course, it is not exactly unknown for revolutions to go very badly wrong, and the example of the Iranian Revolution is understandably in the minds of many. The overthrow of the Shah might not have resulted in quite such a disaster if the US had not backed his tyranny to the last and trampled all over Iran like a colonial master. Even an Iranian Baha’i professor I once studied under, who hated the Ayatollah Khomenei’s regime as much as anyone, told our class how he agreed with Khomenei’s famous pre-revolutionary complaint: ‘If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, or the marja’ of Iran, or the highest official, no one will have the right to object.’ If we now alienate the Egyptian people, we will have only ourselves to blame if a post-Mubarak government is less than well-disposed toward us.

Rather than being paralysed by fear, we should anticipate what the democratic transformation in Egypt could mean. It could mean that a regime that has been generating Islamist terrorism will be replaced by one that will act as a catalyst for democratic transformation throughout the Arab world and the Middle East. It could mean a decisive shift in the balance between democracy and dictatorship within the Muslim world globally. Of course, this is not pre-ordained, and things could go very badly wrong in Egypt. But let us in the West keep our eyes on the prize, and do everything we can to assist our Egyptian sisters and brothers in their struggle against tyranny. Obama and Cameron should begin by telling Mubarak that it’s time to go.

Let the tyrants tremble – victory to the Egyptian revolution !

Sunday, 30 January 2011 Posted by | Egypt, Iran, Islam, Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment