In their campaigns for the presidency, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have held up stability as their preeminent goal for the Middle East and argued against efforts that would undermine autocracy in the region, even to the point of opposing the replacement of the Assad regime, which has committed mass slaughter and countless other crimes against humanity in Syria. Working to foster the spread of democracy and human rights is not seen as a vital national security interest by either populist nationalists or liberal nationalists. Some reject a belief in universal human rights, while others argue that the people of the region simply lack the capacity to live in free societies, respect human rights, and participate politically. Often, this line of thinking is paired with the argument that autocracy had been providing the region with stability and order. The historical record and sources of the present unrest point to the opposite conclusion.
In a recent speech, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power explained why autocracy is actually the source of much of the instability, violence, and injustice in the region:
It was not the United States or the coalition of which we were a part that shattered the tenuous stability of the Qaddafi’s tyrannical rule; it was the Libyan insurrection, which was a thoroughly Libyan-driven occurrence. Once the Libyan people had decided to contest Qaddafi’s rule, he would not have been able to restore order – whether by repression or even by brutal massacre. On the contrary, had Qaddafi gone forward and carried out his threats, it would almost certainly have galvanized more fighters to join the ranks fighting against him. So the increasingly common claim that our standing by would somehow have made for a more stable Libya just isn’t right….
So here’s the question: What is the U.S. role in promoting inclusive, accountable governments and robust civil societies that we know are so crucial to advancing our long-term interests in the region?
Now, this question rests on a premise that some in the region – and even in our own country, including a few prominent presidential candidates – might contest. That premise is that the way the countries of the Middle East will achieve greater stability and security over time is by moving toward governments that have to answer to their own people, and that respect human rights. People who challenge this premise tend to argue that strongmen are the only forces that can hold these societies together, and that it was the very collapse of the region’s strongmen that led to the rising violence and turmoil that harm U.S. interests today. One almost encounters a kind of nostalgia for the autocrats who are seen to have maintained order back in the day.
It is true that, for decades, undemocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa – many of them in fact ruled by strongmen – offered a veneer of stability, particularly when compared to the current upheaval. But the leaders did not grow the political or economic institutions in their society, and, by refraining from pursuing political evolution, they set the stage for much more disruptive revolution. The wave of popular uprisings that spread across the region in 2011 represented a clear rejection of the corrupt, ineffective, and abusive machinery that had stifled people’s aspirations for so long.
Some have argued that the United States should have prevented the Arab Spring, or that different policy choices could have preserved the old order. But the truth is that once the citizens of the region lost their fear – and that was a big threshold they had to cross – once they lost their fear and took to the streets, the strongmen would have needed to use significant violence to try to put the genie back in the bottle – violence of a scale that the United States could not have aligned. Violence that would have never succeeded in the end in turning back the clock.
Let me be clear: the old system was not the source of stability – it was itself at the root of so much of the violence we see in the Middle East today. Autocratic rule is bad for the future of the region and it is bad for the interests of the United States.
Rather than invest in their people, strongmen use their nations to enrich themselves and to crush independent checks on their power. To give just one example, it is estimated that, at one point, approximately one in five people in Libya was on the payroll of Qaddafi’s Orwellian security apparatus. Just think about that: a fifth of a country paid to police itself. Imagine if those resources and that energy had been directed to Libyan schools or Libyan hospitals.
In addition, autocrats routinely stoke ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions that can quickly lead to explosive violence. They recognize that one of the most effective ways to entrench themselves in power is to persuade members of one group or another that their survival depends on patronage and protection. Similarly, they are also quick to repress the rights of minorities when they see such actions as a useful distraction, or as an opportunity to strengthen their own hand. In this way, the tension fueled by strongmen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, igniting divisions between communities that have long lived together in relative stability. And the fiber that binds pluralistic societies together is much easier to tear apart than it is to sew back together.
Another reason we should be wary of supporting strongmen is that they foster a climate of fear and despair that can be exploited by terrorist groups to grab territory, as we have seen, and to attract new members. Extremist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda have seized upon the frustration that builds up in places where people feel they have no agency to overcome the injustices they endure. These groups promise them a delusional but nominally righteous pathway in which to channel their resentment.
Now no suffering, no matter how profound, can justify terrorism. Nothing can justify a person violently attacking innocent human beings. ISIL is a monstrous, nihilistic movement that has inflicted immeasurable suffering that goes well beyond what its members themselves have experienced. My point is only that that the systematic repression and atrocities that despots rely upon to maintain their grip on power creates a climate of instability and despair that extremist groups have used to help recruit.
Consider Syria, again. No single factor has been a bigger boon for the recruitment of groups like ISIL than the horrors committed by the Assad regime. Each time the Syrian military has gassed a civilian neighborhood; or barrel-bombed a school, hospital, or bread line; or cut off another community from vital humanitarian aid, starving helpless men, women, and children to death – every time the Assad regime has not just succeeded in inflicting tremendous suffering on Syrian people, it has fueled the hatred that ISIL and extremist groups use to draw more fighters to their cause, including thousands of foreign fighters holding American and EU passports.
Thanks to the cessation of hostilities, some of these horrific practices have been reduced. But we still see persistent violations and indiscriminate regime attacks.
The Assad regime also provides an example of the fourth reason autocrats make for bad and unreliable partners: they often support terrorism when they see it as advancing their narrow self interests. During the war in Iraq, the Syrian government allowed its territory to become the main transit route for terrorists traveling to Iraq to fight the American-led coalition. The Syrian government also has sponsored the terrorist group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon for decades. And while Assad presents himself as the only man standing in the way of ISIL overrunning Syria, he conveniently omits that it was his own government that released up to a thousand violent detainees, including many individuals who had been radicalized in his own appalling prisons, and he did that in order to justify his government’s crackdown on peaceful protesters. Just think about that for a moment: a dictator deliberately, cynically strengthens the hand of terrorists in order to try to gain Western support and create a pretext for crushing nonviolent dissent. Similarly, Qaddafi consistently sponsored terrorist groups and attacks during his reign, including the infamous Lockerbie bombing. Is it really credible to argue that partnering with leaders like these will help us fight terrorism over time?
What is an alternative to autocracy that can better promote long-term security, justice, prosperity, and peace in the region? Powers explains:
So if we have such profound concerns about autocratic behaviors, who or what are we for? I’ll just lay that out here. We are for pluralistic, inclusive governments that empower all their people, regardless of their sect, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, rather than pitting them against one another. Governments that give a share of power to all groups through transparent, democratic processes, and give their citizens the tools to hold those in office and those in civil and public service accountable. We are for governments that give their people a chance to provide for their families through honest means, rather than creating a system where corruption and patronage is the only way to get by or to get ahead. We are for governments that empower women and girls, both because it is right thing to do and because countries where women enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities are, on average, more prosperous, healthier, more democratic, and more peaceful. We are for leaders who give people a path to participating in their societies without having to take to the streets in protest. We are for institutions that are built to empower their people, rather than to exploit them; to serve their people, rather than to repress them. We are for using political processes, institutions, and negotiations to resolve conflicts, rather than using violence. We are for rule of law, rather than rule by law.
Disagreements will inevitably exist over the exceptionally complex question of how to promote this form of government in the region. But recognizing that this commitment to basic rights, good governance, and political participation aligns both with our most cherished values and the key overall goals of US foreign policy is critical. Propping up brutal dictatorships is not only unjust; it will never bring the stability that its proponents desire and promise.