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Good Mideast Dictators

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By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst

It is often said that the Arab Spring proves American support for Middle Eastern autocrats for more than half a century was wrong because the policy did not bring peace or stability. Nonsense. For any policy to remain relevant for so many decades in this tumultuous world is itself a sign of success. Support for moderate Arab monarchs and secular dictatorships was part of a successful Cold War strategy for which there is no need to apologize. It helped secure the sea lines of communication between the oil-rich Middle East and the West, on which the well being of Americans depended. What was the United States supposed to have done? Overthrow a slew of regimes across a vast swath of the earth for decades on end because those states did not conform with America's own historical experience and political system? Or should we not have had diplomatic relations with these regimes in the first place? No responsible American statesman would choose either of those options. What were Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and James Baker supposed to have done? Not seek Arab-Israeli troop disengagement accords and peace agreements because their Arab interlocutors were not democratically elected? Remember that thus far, Israel has only concluded peace agreements and disengagement accords with Arab dictators, men who had the luxury to throw their opponents out of power when they opposed such deals.

A basic rule of foreign policy pragmatism is that you must work with the material at hand: because it is dangerous and costly to replace regimes thousands of miles away from home when they do not correspond to your values or liking. Throughout the Cold War and the two decades following the end of communism in Europe, autocrats constituted the material at hand in the Middle East even as the technology of social media was not yet available to undermine those regimes.

But has the Arab Spring actually toppled Middle Eastern autocrats? Only partially. In North Africa, three of five regimes and their apparatuses have been replaced if you count Egypt; in the Levant, none have been replaced, though Syria's now hangs by a thread; and in the Arabian Peninsula, only Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh has fallen — and his supporters remain influential. That adds up to a record of regime change of about a third. Of course, more will fall. In Syria, this will happen perhaps any day now, and that will trigger changes throughout the region. Moreover, the Arab Spring has led to political reform in Morocco, Oman and elsewhere. Finally, the Arab Spring has affected the overall psychology of the Middle East. Everywhere regimes are nervous about public opinion to a degree that they were not before the original revolt in Tunisia at the end of 2010.

The regimes that have fallen, and that still might, were long overdue to collapse. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was an uninspiring security thug in a society already too sophisticated for that sort. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya was a tyrant out of antiquity encased in self-delusion. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was barely cognizant because of age and illness, and even that did not signal his fall; rather, his fall was deemed necessary by a military establishment that did not want his son, who never served in uniform, to succeed him in power. Only in Yemen was a dictator's fall not necessarily inevitable. Saleh had remained in power for a third of a century by manipulating tribal politics in a country where geography was not friendly to central control, and he still had his wits about him at the end. But generally speaking, it has only been the worst autocrats who have been overthrown. Those less noxious regimes, mainly in the Gulf, have survived until now.

Syria, of course, appears to constitute an autocracy whose base of support is melting rapidly. By the time you read these words, it may no longer exist. Though in Syria, like in Egypt, we still have to distinguish between the fall of a man, a family dynasty and a regime. Thus far in Egypt, we have merely had a coup; the military still rules as it did under Mubarak. In Syria, there are numerous possibilities, not all of which signify complete regime change, though complete regime change there is the likely outcome. The bottom line is that the Arab Spring is not synonymous with democracy. Democracy has made substantial inroads in Tunisia but fewer elsewhere. The results of Egypt's elections have been undermined by continued military control. Libya may have held elections, and it may even have elected an enlightened moderate. But there are few institutions with which to project power beyond greater Tripoli. Democracy is not only about voting. It is also about capable organizations of government.

Alas, the Arab Spring can be defined as a crisis in central authority, in which old orders in a sizable minority of countries have proved untenable even as new and freer orders are struggling to emerge. Those new and freer orders, moreover, will not always prove more edifying than what they replaced. Simply because a people can vote does not mean they will choose individuals who will govern according to the liberal values of the West. Democracy does not guarantee good government; it only guarantees the ability to register the political and emotional health of a given population at a given moment. It is famously said — and truly said — that Hitler was elected in a democratic election. While Chinese communist leader, Deng Xiaoping may have improved the material well being and advanced the personal freedoms of more people in a shorter space of time than any man in history. Finally, democracy may be a public good in and of itself. But democratization can be a long, tortuous and deeply destabilizing process.

The basic truth about the Arab Spring is that it has brought us not only more freedom but also more complexity. Rather than one man, one telephone number and one email address to deal with in case of international crises involving this country or that, Washington now has to take into account the sentiments of dozens of people in the political power structure of a given Arab capital. It used to be easy to determine who held real authority in order to get something specific done or to resolve a crisis. Now it can be a matter of theory, the latest rumor or a piece of intelligence.

More complexity means that it is not entirely clear that the political changes in the Middle East since early 2011 are necessarily in the interest of the United States. The United States as a mass democracy generally supports the expansion of civil society throughout the world, and the Arab Spring is for the most part in line with that. But America is at the same time a status quo power that seeks to preserve the present power arrangement because it keeps America in a position of relative dominance.

Through it all, the most interesting countries to watch may be those least in the news: the constitutionally evolving monarchies of Morocco and Oman and the sheikhdoms in the Gulf (Bahrain excepted) with oil money to spend on their small populations in order to bribe them toward quiescence. Some of them are, to varying degrees, peacefully experimenting with more liberal political orders, proving that the best kind of progress is often the most gradual kind, the kind that fails to attract headlines.

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