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Presidential Politics and the Lessons Learned from Middle East Dictatorships

Middle East instability is in large part due to past dictators centralizing the state around themselves and a small cadre of elites.

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One of the memes dominating US foreign policy debates is the appropriate American posture toward the leaders of other countries, particularly in the Middle East. Republican Presidential candidates Ted CruzRand Paul, and Donald Trump have all expressed a longing for the order imposed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has made similar comments criticizing Hillary Clinton for her support for the Iraq war and US intervention in Libya. Although Sanders stopped short of saying that the world was safer with these regimes in place (as the aforementioned Republicans do), he does assert that ISIS and other radicals have exploited the vacuums created by war and intervention.

This pining for the formerly quiet forms of human suffering in the Middle East demonstrates that politicians in both political parties are learning the wrong lessons from the region’s autocrats.

Rand Paul noted that Qaddafi had “suppressed radical Islam,” but said nothing about his suppression of Libyans that supported reforms—political, economic, or otherwise. Not only did Qaddafi kill those dissidents that he uncovered in his own country, but he also put bounties on the heads of Libyans abroad who dared criticize his regime. Paul at least acknowledges that “Qaddafi wasn’t a good guy.”

Yemen represents a similarly instructive case study. President Ali Abdullah Saleh spent decades deliberately weakening any political institutions beyond the corrupt patronage networks that sustained his rule. When political protests threatened to undermine his government, Saleh had the audacity to lament that “Somalia-like chaos” would be the result of his ouster. True to his word and despite his 2012 resignation, Saleh has played an instrumental role in fomenting the civil war that now engulfs Yemen.

The autocrats of the region, when under siege, routinely tout their security and stability credentials. This is particularly true as the United States ramps up its counterterror efforts in the region. In Egypt, for instance, the government headed by President AbdelFattah El-Sisi—whom Cruz has praised for his “courage”—has essentially crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, throwing its leaders in prison along with most of their members. Human rights defendersliberal critics, and youth leaders have also found themselves in the notorious Tora Prison. Some who once contemplated a freer Egypt now contemplate migration. Despite Sisi’s immense crackdown on Egypt’s civil society and the “stability” he claims to champion, activists there still call for revolution.

Being a dictator is a thankless job. When the economy falters, the educational system deteriorates, and the healthcare systems fail to provide basic services, populations blame their autocratic leaders for mismanagement and corruption. When economic growth improves and the regime institutes reforms of social programs, activists assert that responsive and accountable governments would do the same, and do it better. Institutions developed by autocrats are more often than not built only to bolster the regime. Despite the billions of dollars and countless efforts that Western governments have devoted to building political institutions in non-democratic states, dictators rarely commit to reforms or building institutions that may open political space for competitors and threaten their monopoly of power. They’re always content to let Western powers subsidize failed programs, however.

Political changes in authoritarian regimes, especially at a rapid pace, always introduce a degree of instability and disorder. There are no neat, orderly transitions from dictatorship to democracy. Although US efforts against the Qaddafi or Hussein regimes were short-sighted, with little consideration for how to contain the inevitable disorder that ensued, the autocrats helped to determine these outcomes by centralizing the state around themselves and a small cadre of elites.

Even in the Gulf, which contains some of the most stable regimes in the Middle East, aging rulers and their opaque regimes often spread fears about succession crises. Similarly in North Africa, the international community and the local populace worry about what will happen after Algeria’s ill and elderly Abdelaziz Bouteflika dies. Caught between Libya’s instability and Tunisia’s fragility, Algeria’s fate could have major regional ramifications—all without a popular uprising or an outside intervention.

It’s absurd to assert that autocrats like Qaddafi, Hussein, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or any other dictator make the world safe. The upheaval we see in the Middle East today is not a function of their absence, or the deterioration of their authority, but because of the hollowing out of society that they accomplished when they were in power. When American policymakers claim that the lesson of Iraq and Libya is that dictators create stability, they have clearly learned the wrong lesson.

The people of the Middle East deserve a new political order not based on short-sighted, often brutal, often Western-sponsored conceptions of “stability.” For better or worse, the United States and the wider international community play a role in the regional order. But improving the status quo requires not blaming unruly populations or half-baked Western interventions as the primary drivers of dysfunction but rather pointing the finger at the corrupt political classes that survive by weakening Middle Eastern societies.

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Update was slow, but still no lag in the editor window, and footnotes are intact.     This has been updated – Bernard Lewis, who passed away in May 2018, was a renowned British-American historian of Islam and the Middle East. A former British intelligence officer, Foreign Office staffer, and Princeton University professor, Lewis was…


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