Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

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.

LobeLog

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.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is one of the Senate’s more vocal hawks, and one of the prime vacillators among Republicans between objecting to and supporting Donald Trump.


Ron Dermer is the Israeli ambassador to the United States and has deep connections to the Republican Party and the neoconservative movement.


The Washington-based American Enterprise Institute is a rightist think tank with a broad mandate covering a range of foreign and domestic policy issues that is known for its strong connections to neoconservatism and overseas debacles like the Iraq War.


Max Boot, neoconservative military historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, on Trump and Russia: “At every turn Trump is undercutting the ‘get tough on Russia’ message because he just can’t help himself, he just loves Putin too much.”


Since taking office Donald Trump has revealed an erratic and extremely hawkish approach to U.S. foreign affairs, which has been marked by controversial actions like dropping out of the Iran nuclear agreement that have raised tensions across much of the world and threatened relations with key allies.


Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and an evangelical pastor, is a far-right pundit known for his hawkish policies and opposition to an Israeli peace deal with the Palestinians.


Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is known for her lock-step support for Israel and considered by some to be a future presidential candidate.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The Trumpian new regional order in the Middle East is predicated on strongman rule, disregard for human rights, Sunni primacy over Iran and other Shia centers of power, continued military support for pro-American warring parties regardless of the unlawfulness of such wars, and Israeli hegemony.


A comparison of U.S. nuclear diplomacy with Iran and the current version with North Korea puts the former in a good light and makes the latter look disappointing. Those with an interest in curbing the dangers of proliferating nuclear weapons should hope that the North Korea picture will improve with time. But whether it does or not, the process has put into perspective how badly mistaken was the Trump administration’s trashing of the Iran nuclear agreement.


Numerous high profile Trump administration officials maintain close ties with anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists. In today’s America, disparaging Islam is acceptable in ways that disparaging other religions is not. Given the continuing well-funded campaigns by the Islamophobes and continuing support from their enablers in the Trump administration, starting with the president himself, it seems unlikely that this trend will be reversed any time soon.


The Trump administration’s nuclear proliferation policy is now in meltdown, one which no threat of “steely resolve”—in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words—will easily contain. It is hemorrhaging in part because the administration has yet to forge a strategy that consistently and credibly signals a feasible bottom line that includes living with—rather than destroying—regimes it despises or fears. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle must call for a new model that has some reasonable hope of restraining America’s foes and bringing security to its Middle East allies.


Congressional midterm elections are just months away and another presidential election already looms. Who will be the political leader with the courage and presence of mind to declare: “Enough! Stop this madness!” Man or woman, straight or gay, black, brown, or white, that person will deserve the nation’s gratitude and the support of the electorate. Until that occurs, however, the American penchant for war will stretch on toward infinity.


To bolster the president’s arguments for cutting back immigration, the administration recently released a fear-mongering report about future terrorist threats. Among the potential threats: a Sudanese national who, in 2016, “pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS”; an Uzbek who “posted a threat on an Uzbek-language website to kill President Obama in an act of martyrdom on behalf of ISIS”; a Syrian who, in a plea agreement, “admitted that he knew a member of ISIS and that while in Syria he participated in a battle against the Syrian regime, including shooting at others, in coordination with Al Nusrah,” an al-Qaeda offshoot.


The recent appointment of purveyors of anti-Muslim rhetoric to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom exposes the cynical approach Republicans have taken in promoting religious freedom.


RightWeb
share