Dictators and Democrats

Stick with principles–not personalities

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

I don’t think many Americans would argue that the answer for the sometimes lethargic, elected Karzai government in Afghanistan should be a coup by a Pashtun warlord and his battle-hardened lieutenants. Prime Minister Maliki and his elected government in Iraq are frequently criticized for being unwilling, or unable, to deal with Shiite militias. Should the U.S., then, look instead for an ex-Baathist to knock a few heads and declare martial law?

These are silly questions since Americans have died, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, for the ideal of constitutional government. 

But the same holds true in Pakistan: the issue is not Pervez Musharraf, but whether, in the post-9/11 world in which the United States has become an advocate for consensual government, we are consistent in our support for reform — even when, as is the rule in the Middle East, the choices are bleak, and involve only “bad and much worse” alternatives.

In other words, in the labyrinth of the Middle East, the United States must insist on some degree of consistency in declaring that constitutional law and open elections are critical in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Pakistan. That does not mean that we go dragon hunting around the Middle East, slaying autocratic monsters and installing white knights by plebiscites.

Instead, as events unfold, and to the degree that the United States is already involved and has influence — our soldiers dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, some two billion dollars in annual aid to Pakistan, subsidizing the Egyptian military — we need to predicate our policy on principles that endure rather than upon personalities who don’t.

How might we do that?

Given the odd furor over championing democracies, we might as much as possible then watch carefully the use of “democracy” and “freedom” — both of which are wrongly caricatured by critics as equivalent to ‘one vote/one time’ plebiscites and referenda that bring to power a Hamas or would elect the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

In the present climate, the terms constitutional and consensual government are preferable, because they denote the entire democratic process of transparency, an independent judiciary, human rights, a free economy, and freedom of expression, in which elections are part, but not the whole, of an open society.

Arafat, Hamas, and Ahmadinejad were all “elected,” but only through the aid of a censured media, a populace that could not demonstrate freely, and the strong-arm tactics of their supporters. The question in Pakistan, then, is not simply whether an election will be held next year that might bring into power either odious Islamists or the preferable Benazir Bhutto, but rather the allowance of Pakistani judges, media, and ordinary citizens to speak out and participate as they please.

Second, remind countries that constitutional government brings consequences, being, as it is, a legitimate reflection of national mood and consensus. Pakistanis can now hide behind the idea that “Busharraf” is an American toady on the one hand, while on the other hand he welcomes American aid and support. The disenfranchised often chest-thump about India — assured that none of them have the responsibility, as voting citizens, of angering a neighbor that is five times larger, nuclear, increasingly rich, and in possession of little tolerance for a lunatic regime next door.

Turkey is both constitutional and anti-American. Fine — if Turks chose foolishly to invade Kurdistan, then the country will learn their EU membership is a permanent dead letter, their membership in NATO tenuous, and their eastern Mediterranean stature more Islamic than Western — and all by the general assent of the people.

Turkish citizens consistently poll among the most anti-American of all countries. And rising anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism in popular film and culture, spread not in spite of, but because of the relatively free expression of the country. That is regrettable, but at least free Turks should know that free Americans, who support Turkish parliamentary government, are not oblivious to these developments.

We don’t think such popular expression is a mere machination of a military government, but represents a disturbing populist trend — and have already made a radical change in attitude ourselves. While Turkish politicians may play the anti-American card to enthusiastic crowds, the Turkish nation is on the verge of making itself unpopular and unpalatable to the American people. It is their choice — not ours. Somehow the Turkish people have turned rival Greece — once vehemently anti-American and over the past few years unpopular here in the United States — into being perceived as an increasingly staunch US ally.

Third, we need to understand the way of the dictator. Whether Ferdinand Marcos or Greek colonels or Pervez Musharraf, the brief is always “my finger is in the dike holding back something worse” — worse being either communists of old, or jihadists of the present. Meanwhile dictators cajole for American aid and support, even as they wink at, or actively abet, anti-Americanism, as we see now from the House of Saud to the Mubarak dynasty in Egypt.

When these autocrats fall — and they always do — we are never thanked for trying to shepherd them to reform, or having expressed worry about the worse alternative. Instead, America gets blamed for decades, both for the fall and the ensuing mess. It is better, then, to take the bullets all along, rather than the explosion at the end — as we learned from the blow-ups in Greece and Iran.

Strongmen see their role as shaking down Western aid and support through fear of something far worse, while covering their tracks by becoming tough nationalists in the censored media. Meanwhile, they have no legitimacy at home or abroad. We are angry at Musharraf because bin Laden and company reside free in Waziristan; Musharraf is mad at us because he knows he can’t be bullied to go in there without popular support. So he “sort-of, kind-of” invades, only to retreat in ignominy — angering both the U.S. and the Pakistanis.

A constitutional government either would or would not catch bin Laden. If not, then we should man up to the fact it is a hostile country, undeserving of American aid, and make the necessary political and military adjustments in the region, rather than continue with the present charade.

Fourth, we need to far better explain our dilemma of preferring constitutional government, supporting its evolution — and bracing for the bleak choices that might entail. One way is to remind the world that the U.S., nearly alone, at least makes the attempt.

All others are mostly cynical. The Chinese, for example, have only one foreign policy, given its own autocratic nature: to the degree any government sells us oil or minerals, we support it.

The Russians have one foreign policy: to the degree, any government incites international chaos, raising the price of oil or causing the U.S. a headache, we support it.

In the past, the Europeans themselves have had one foreign policy: to the degree a government offers lucrative trade, poses as a victim of some sort of U.S. heavy-handedness, gives lip-service to the United Nations, global warming, or the need to improve, we leave it alone.

Fifth, we are in the age of nuclear proliferation in which it may become impossible to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Constitutional governments, however, being less likely to attack one another, and being more transparent in their foreign policy, pose far fewer risks. For all the talk of the bomb, few lose sleep become democratic India or Israel has several nuclear weapons. We are terrified of Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea possessing even one.

Finally, it is better to be consistently and quietly firm in our support of consensual government, than to be loud and widely erratic — now blaring about the universal desire for freedom and its erosion by a Castro or Chavez, now shrugging that Mubarak or Musharraf is better than the alternative.

With consistent support for constitutional reform, the world will know where we stand, and what to expect when the next coup goes down — whether in Myanmar or Pakistan — rather than spitting out the charge of hypocrisy when we don’t live up to our revolutionary declarations. So we should quietly institutionalize our support for constitutional government, and make it transcend the particular strongmen of the moment.

Nagging without consequences is just as bad as silently sending blanket aid to a dictator. In general in matters of promoting helpful change abroad, it’s always better to be quiet and carry a big stick, than strut with a toothpick.

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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