Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Joy of Dictators

The current demonstrations in Egypt, hot on the heels of the ones that brought down Tunisia's government, put a glaring spotlight on America's foreign relations split personality. The US has always talked boldly about the need for more democracy around the world. It's a long running theme in our public persona. But this democratic fervor is at odds with our long history of supporting authoritarian regimes.

Don't get me wrong, compared with some of America's other past and present 'allies', Egypt is tame. After all, they are the only Arab nation to have formally accepted Israel's right to exist, signed a peace treaty with them and have maintained diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Compared to many other regional powers, Egypt is fairly moderate. But the fact remains that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has held power for nearly 30 years behind the fiction of elections that always awarded him victory by absurd margins. You'd think these authoritarian regimes would learn after a while. If they really want to keep the illusion that they are being re-elected repeatedly, at least keep the numbers realistic. Any margin over about 60% is pretty much a guarantee of corruption yet Mubarak 'won' consistently with margins of 80% or more. Might as well drop the pretense and exchange the title 'President' for 'Dictator'. He could at least claim the high ground on honesty.

The root of the problem is that as much as America likes Democracies in theory, we find them rather problematic to deal with in practice. A great example of this was in the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US requested that Turkey let us move a large contingent of troops through their country to enable an advance into Iraq from the north. This tidy plan came apart, however, when Turkey's democratic government voted to deny the request forcing a delay as these troops were diverted to the Gulf. You see, the problem with a democracy is that it's not always predictable. Just look at the US Congress if you doubt that. But a dictatorship! Now that's a government deals are made of! There's nothing more efficient in foreign policy than to be able to sit down in a single office that can encompass the entire ruling government. Only in an authoritarian regime can the word of a few, or even just one, official guarantee the nation's lock-step agreement.

This is why the initial US response to the popular demonstrations in Egypt was so neutral. Ideologically we are strongly attracted to the Egyptian's calls for reform and a representative government. On the other hand we would lose a reasonably friendly partner with which we have a long history. Not to mention that any new government would be a rather chancy roll of the dice. What kind of government would replace Mubarak? Would they be more fundamentalist? Would they be friendly to America or not? We still have vivid memories from the late 70's when the US backed Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular revolution and it didn't turn out too well for us as a nation or for the Americans held hostage for 444 days.

But this is what happens when we take the easy route and throw our support behind strong-arm regimes while turning a blind eye to their iron handed rule. Another outcome of this convenient arrangement is when a one time ally becomes an enemy. Anyone remember that in the early 80's we were buddies with a gentleman by the name of Saddam Hussein? Another one that didn't turn out so well. Personally I think it's time to stop taking the easy road when it comes to international relations because, just as in most things, easy often carries a rather steep price tag when all is said and done.


  1. I hear you. And I keep hearing people say that, yes, we need to support the move toward democracy (seems like a 50/50 chance for something close to a democracy to emerge) BUT WE ALSO must be on the right side of history and not be seen as supporting a loser. We had to wait until it seemed unlikely that Mubarak would maintain control; now it's safe to pressure him to leave. But, yeah, what comes next?

  2. I am glad that things such as this are not up to me because the sheer game playing of it all would tire me out. It isn't about standing by what is right. It's being in the right political position.


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