First, a quote:
The pattern is familiar enough: an established autocracy with a record of friendship with the U.S. is attacked by insurgents…Violence spreads and American officials wonder aloud about the viability of a regime that “lacks the support of its own people.” The absence of an opposition party is deplored and civil-rights violations are reviewed. Liberal columnists question the morality of continuing aid to a “rightist dictatorship” and provide assurances concerning the essential moderation of some insurgent leaders who “hope” for some sign that the U.S. will remember its own revolutionary origins. Requests for help from the beleaguered autocrat go unheeded, and the argument is increasingly voiced that ties should be established with rebel leaders “before it is too late.”…
[There is] a growing clamor for American disengagement on grounds that continued involvement confirms our status as an agent of imperialism, racism, and reaction; is inconsistent with support for human rights; alienates us from the “forces of democracy”; and threatens to put the U.S. once more on the side of history’s “losers.” This chorus is supplemented daily by interviews with returning missionaries and “reasonable” rebels.
As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”…
[T]he U.S. will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world…And everywhere our friends will have noted that the U.S. cannot be counted on in times of difficulty and our enemies will have observed that American support provides no security against the forward march of history.
Does that passage seem to describe Obama and Egypt pretty well? Actually, it’s from an article by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick that appeared in Commentary in 1979 (hat tip: Robert Stacy McCain), over thirty years ago, during Jimmy’s Carter’s administration.
Kirkpatrick was a neocon of sorts, although not the sort of neocon people often seem to be referring to today, when the word is so commonly misused to mean “warmonger who wants to wage war on dictatorships and naively thinks they will then magically turn into democracies.” Kirkpatrick was a neocon in the sense that she was a political changer, having once been a socialist and then a Democrat but ultimately becoming a conservative (in part out of dissatisfaction with Jimmy Carter’s policies as president) and serving as Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, the first woman to hold that position. She was also a neocon in that she [emphasis mine]:
…advocated U.S. support of anticommunist governments around the world, including authoritarian dictatorships, if they went along with Washington’s aims—believing they could be led into democracy by example. She wrote, “Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies.”
That Commentary article was actually what originally brought Kirkpatrick to Reagan’s attention. In it, she had the following to say about the development of democracies, which she believed ordinarily occurred at a sedate pace:
In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government’s effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits…
Although there is no instance of a revolutionary “socialist” or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies–given time, propitious economic, social, and political circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government…But it seems clear that the architects of contemporary American foreign policy have little idea of how to go about encouraging the liberalization of an autocracy…
The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers and journalists accustomed to public institutions based on universalistic norms rather than particularistic relations.
The failure to understand these relations is one source of the failure of U.S. policy in this and previous administrations. There are others. In Iran and Nicaragua (as previously in Vietnam, Cuba, and China) Washington overestimated the political diversity of the opposition–especially the strength of “moderates” and “democrats” in the opposition movement; underestimated the strength and intransigence of radicals in the movement; and misestimated the nature and extent of American influence on both the government and the opposition.
Kirkpatrick was writing in a Cold War context in 1979 (I omitted some of the USSR references in the article), so the re-democratization of countries such as Russia had not yet occurred. But the way it has happened after the fall of the Soviets, and the restrictive form “democracy” has taken there, only serves to underscore how difficult it is to develop a so-called liberal (as in “classical liberal”) democracy, with its guarantees of human rights and liberties.
Did the Bush administration ignore warnings such as Kirkpatrick’s when it embarked on the Iraq War? Yes and no. I think it underestimated how difficult the reconstruction would be and overestimated the stomach Americans would have for such an undertaking. But if you recall the reasons we went into Iraq, many had less to do with nation-building or democracy and more to do with weapons inspections and UN resolutions and Hussein’s continual defiance of them (here’s a post of mine that discusses this). Saddam Hussein was most definitely not the sort of autocrat Kirkpatrick describes, one who would have been interested in a slow progression of moves towards greater democracy; au contraire. So the alternative she advocates didn’t exist with him in charge.
The Shah of Iran was probably the prototype of what she was talking about—an autocrat who was essentially pro-US (unlike Saddam) but who was dealing with forces in his country that would have destroyed him and his reforms if he didn’t clamp down on them, hard. After Carter abandoned him, he was replaced by a regime far worse than his had been in human rights, and exceedingly hostile to the US as well.
Good move, Jimmy.
The dilemma faced by all US presidents in these situations is hardly a simple one, however. Support the old dictator and you’re called an enemy of the people. Help topple him (active or passively) and you often pave the way for something worse. Try to guide the reconstruction that will follow and you’re accused of being an occupying power—if you’re a Republican, that is (perhaps Obama could get away with it, but he’s never going to try).
[NOTE: I learned from Kirkpatrick’s Wiki page that one of her three sons is a Buddhist lama. Don’t know what to make of that, but I pass the information on to you.]