Islamists, Dictators, and Bad Choices
For those of us who lived through the fall of the shah of Iran, the Egyptian elections are 1979 all over again. Then, a naïve President Carter decided that a compliant dictator who was aligned with our security interests was less worthy of our continued support than a group of theocrats who would create one of the most repressive regimes on the face of the planet.
Today, the Obama administration has jettisoned Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, another compliant dictator who represented our interests, in favor of the chimera of a popular democratic movement that, like the one in Iran in 1979, has proved to be merely a stepping-stone to the rise of the fundamentalists. As the interim Egyptian military government sought to postpone elections in light of an all-too-predictable outcome, the Obama administration revved up the pressure on the military to call for elections, repeating in Egypt what Carter had done in Iran.
Carter's decision led to Professor Jeane Kirkpatrick's "Dictators and Double Standards" in Commentary Magazine, a work that would speak directly and critically to Carter's ill-fated Iranian policy. Kirkpatrick advocated that America support authoritarian dictatorships that supported our interests. Drawing a distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships, in terms of both the severity of their oppression against their own people and their threat to our national security, Kirkpatrick saw Carter's human rights emphasis, which was his justification for not supporting the shah, as actually undermining human rights. By not supporting the shah, Carter opened the gates to the reign of the totalitarian theocrats.
Obama's Middle East foreign policy is indistinguishable from Carter's. Obama's policy is concerned more with being part of some ephemeral and ill-defined "democratic" historical moment than with drawing the difficult distinctions and making the hard and often unpopular choices to which Kirkpatrick's analyses led.
Authoritarian dictators are a threat to their own people. Authoritarian dictators do not attempt to project power beyond their borders. As reprehensible, ruthless, and violent as their regimes are, they are neither a direct nor an immediate threat to our security.
In the Middle East, not only did dictators such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh pose no threat to America, however oppressive their regimes, but they also supported our interests. Even Moammar Gaddafi's episodic acts of sponsored violence were in the larger scheme of things neither an existential nor a systemic threat. By any measure, there is far more justification for American intervention in Syria than there was for the Obama administration to bring the Islamists to power in Libya.
The real threat in the Middle East comes from those who will project power -- not just through military means, but also through a virulent ideology which is taking root throughout the Islamic world and even in Muslim enclaves in the West. Amid the chaos and power-vacuum of the so-called "Arab Spring," power is shifting not to the idealists in the streets, who naïvely saw virtue in a "leaderless" revolution, but to those who have long stood in the wings organizing and waiting for the opportunity to take over.
Leon Trotsky ended up with a pickaxe in his head while residing in exile in Mexico City. In contrast, the bureaucratic-oriented, power-driven Stalin rose to become the dictator of the Soviet Union. Trotsky, not Stalin, had been in the streets of St. Petersburg directing the Russian Revolution. Stalin, in contrast, concentrated on the mundane task of taking over and organizing the Communist Party of the new Soviet Union. Power goes not to the idealists, but to those who have organized and anticipated finding opportunity in chaos.
The young people who initiated the Arab Spring will no more see their vision of the future come to fruition than did the young people who ran through the streets of St. Petersburg in 1917. As Trotsky opened the gates of power to Stalin's dictatorship, so too the young people running through the streets of the Middle East and screaming for change have opened the corridors of power to the Islamists.
As the Carter administration created the nightmare of Iran by bringing the mullahs to power, the Obama administration has created a new nightmare by bringing the Islamists to power.
The administration has supported the Islamists against the dictators while ignoring Kirkpatrick's warning that whom you support in the world often boils down to choosing between the evil that threatens you and the evil that doesn't. In failing to make this distinction and siding with those whose popular slogans resonated with our instincts but who had no chance of taking and holding power, the administration has behaved with naïveté and stupidity. Obama has sacrificed our strategic interests by supporting those whose goal is to project power to destroy us. Our policies are directed by the slogans of those who appear to stand for democratic change. We have chosen to ignore that those people are being pushed aside in a larger power-struggle sweeping the entire Middle East.
Kirkpatrick's admonition is as relevant to the struggle in the Middle East today as it was three decades ago:
No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime and anywhere, under any circumstances. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits. In Britain, the road [to democratic government] took seven centuries to traverse... The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers.
As it was in Iran, so too is it happening in Egypt. It is not farce that is being played out in this repetition of historical tragedy. This is a repeat of Carter's birthing of the regime that is the single greatest sponsor and perpetrator of terrorism. An Islamist Egypt will simply be another Iran, and that will come about because Obama, as Carter did, judged an historical moment by its aspiration rather than by its reality.