February 4, 2011
America and the Middle East Dictators
"What are we going to do -- support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don't want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?" Thus spake Robert Kagan in advocating regime change in Egypt.
But that raises an interesting question. How many dictators is the United States supporting in the Middle East? Not many. Of course, to the Islamists the kings of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and all the small Gulf sheikdoms are dictators. Do we regard them as such? If not, there aren't many potential dictators left.
The United States gives some help to Algeria, but that country isn't an American client. So what's left in the dictator category? Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority (though its government has outstayed its term) and some others have governments picked in free elections. That's about it.
So with Tunisia gone, and the regime's fall welcomed by the United States, Egypt was the only dictatorship the United States was supporting. And indeed, the U.S. government overthrew two dictatorships -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and helped make them into (imperfect) democracies.
So was one remaining dictatorship too many? At any rate, Kagan's charge is false, unless he'd like to see the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood overthrow the monarchy with U.S. help.
On the other side, of course, there are a lot of dictatorships: Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iran, and the Gaza Strip. Those dictatorships have proven to be pretty durable. Their number is increasing.
Almost everyone has forgotten how the regime that rules Egypt got started in the first place. Kagan's argument parallels what American policymakers said then: Why support a corrupt monarchy when there are these shiny young idealistic officers who will win over the people and thus be more effective bulwarks against Communism. I don't want to give the impression that the 1952 coup was mostly America's doing, but U.S. support was a factor.
The result was disastrous: Gamal Abdel Nasser became leader of the radical Arab faction and turned the Middle East upside-down for two decades.
In Iran in 1978-1979 the administration of Jimmy Carter applied what we might call Kagan's rule:
"What are we going to do--support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don't want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?"
And so the United States helped push the Shah out of power in the belief that a popular democratic government would emerge, the Iranian people would be happy and they would thank America. There was no need to be afraid of Islamists "taking their share." The resulting regime has turned the region upside down now for three decades.
Now the United States is doing the same thing. Fearful of being tarred with supporting a dictator (King Farouq, the Shah) it wants to get rid of the old ally and bring in a new democratic model. Certain that the old regime's fall is "inevitable," Washington helps it along. Scoffing at the fear of radicals (nationalists in Egypt's case; Islamists in Iran's case), the United States opens the door wide to them, certain it will be rewarded for that generosity.
Sure, the United States is not engaging Hamas in Gaza, it also opposes the overthrow of that regime and has helped it with (indirect) financial aid and pressure on Israel to reduce sanctions. The United States has also been very generous to Syria during the Obama Administration, ignoring for all practical purposes its continued backing for terrorism and responsibility for the murder of Americans in Iraq.
So non-fearful of Islamism is the U.S. government that if Iran would only stop building nuclear weapons Washington would rush toward rapprochement, presumably even if Tehran continued doing all the other bad things it does.
The real problem of course is this one:
What are we going to do -- watch friendly regimes fall to become anti-American, terror- sponsoring Islamist dictatorships for the rest of eternity because we don't want to protect allies and instead watch Islamists taking over every political system in the Middle East?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center's site is www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.