Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Problem With Liberal Dictators

By Cernig

Robert Kagan accurately nails the problem with the American love of installing autocrats who promise to bring democracy - they never, ever do.
There always seems to be a good reason to support a dictator. In the late 1970s, Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that it was better to support a "right-wing" dictator lest he be replaced by communists. Right-wing dictatorship -- today some call it "liberal autocracy" -- was in any case a necessary way station on the road to democracy. Communist totalitarians would never give up power and stifled any hope for freedom, but our friendly dictators would eventually give way to liberal politics.

The Reagan administration, and history, actually repudiated both sides of this doctrine. It turned out that right-wing dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos and the South Korean military junta, as other dictators before them, would only leave power if forced. Ironically, a communist leader in the Soviet Union was actually willing to take the steps that ultimately proved his system's undoing.

During the Cold War, Kirkpatrick and many others, including most leading neoconservatives and many in the American foreign policy establishment, bought the dictator's self-serving sales pitch. The dictator always argued that the choice was to support him or give the country to the communists. And he always made sure that this was the choice.

...Today, Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf is playing the old game, as is Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and it appears to be working. Substitute radical Islamists for communists, and the pitch is the same: Apres moi, le deluge. If you force me out, the radical Islamists will win. And Musharraf is busily trying to ensure that this is the only option. He cracks down on moderates with good democratic credentials, and with far greater zeal than he has cracked down on al-Qaeda. If he can hold on long enough, he may so radicalize the opposition that no reasonably moderate alternative will be available.
It's archetypal Cold War thinking, something Cheney must be very comfortable with. Kagan argues that if America cannot ditch the Bush administration's fondness for dictators (and, recall, the original plan was to install one in Iraq too - a plan that was over-ruled by Iraqi pressure but is still resurrected from time to time by neocon pundits) then it must get used to a greater Middle East where "there are only two types of regimes: radical Islamists and stubborn dictatorships." Of course, it makes nonsense of rhetoric about loving democracy and freedom but then again most of the world has seen that rhetoric as transparently self-serving rubbish intended mainly for American domestic consumption for some time now. Certainly longer than Bush has been in power. Reagan ditched it because it served his interests to do so in certain situations, not from some ideological imperative.

However, what's good for the goose is also good for the gander. Left wing populist rulers like Chavez of Venezuela are no more helping their people by riding that popularity into a lifetime dicatorial sinecure than right-wing dictators help their people by promising democracy yet never delivering. Gorbachev was a one-in-a-million visionary and Chavez is no Gorby. It may well be that Chavez can, by dint of his popularity with the people up to now, get a vote proclaiming him president for life. But he shouldn't, and if he does then his motives cannot be unselfish. While he may be popular and helping his people with his policies now, there is no guarantee that he will always do so or that his people will always wish to have him as their lifelong ruler - even if they say they do right now.

In the end, that's the epiphany that European socialism came to several decades ago - the interests of the people will always be better served by the ballot box than by rulers-for-life. Thus the rise of democratic socialism and its close cousin social democracy, which are now the predominant European political currents even if pundits in the U.S. and dictators in South America are still living in socialism's past. For this reason, I reject any attempt to associate Chavez with my kind of "lefty" and respectfully disagree with my colleague Libby. Chavez may well have massive popular support for what he wishes to do, but the responsibilities of a progressive socialist nation go both ways. If his motives were pure, he would know that he is as fallible as any human being and never ask the Venezualan people to do what he is asking them to do - gamble that he will always be as popular, as good for them, as he is now and bet their own political voice on that gamble.

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