The Dilemma of Dictators and Democrats

Overthrowing dictators often makes things worse.

Throughout our history, America has stood as a beacon of liberty for the entire world.  The Bible verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell expresses this sentiment:

Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.

 - Lev. XXV X

Every President has sung this theme, from Jefferson's support for the pre-Terror French Revolution, through Lincoln's fight to free the slaves and FDR's "great arsenal of democracy," right on up to Bush's nation-building misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.  So it is with President Obama: he's now calling for President Mubarak of Egypt to listen to the demands of the Egyptian people and release his stranglehold on power.

What if Mr. Obama is completely wrong about Egyptian freedom, though?  What if Mubarak, as imperfect as he may be, is actually the most free sort of leader that Egypt - or any Middle Eastern Muslim country, for that matter - can handle?

Revolutions Rarely End Well

At the time of our Constitution's writing, the United States was the only country which had successfully revolted against its monarchy.  Rebellion turned out fairly well for us, so it's only natural that Jefferson and our other Founders eagerly welcomed the French revolution.  They assumed the oppressive ancien regime would be replaced by a free republican democracy much like our own.

How wrong they were!  From the very first day, the French Revolution was a bloodthirsty mess: the governor of the Bastille surrendered the fortress in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed, and paid for his humanity with his life at the hands of the howling mob.  Far from being an orderly democracy, France was torn apart by fickle street gangs, power-mad tyrants, ongoing civil war, and finally the highly orderly but imperialistic Napoleon whose armies spread death and destruction from Gibraltar to Moscow.

It took well over a century before France settled down into anything resembling a stable representative democracy, and even then, they're today on their Fifth Republic having had four previous total breakdowns and complete overhauls.

The Russian revolution was not only murderous itself, but led to the genocidal Communist regime from which Russia is only now barely beginning to recover.

Virtually every country in South America and Africa has had one or more revolutions; none have resulted in a long-term stable democracy.

In fact, far from being a generally good thing, armed revolutions almost always wind up with something worse than what went before.  Only the American Revolution and England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 were upheavals that could remotely be called successful in terms of giving a fair return on the cost paid in blood and treasure.

We could explore various possibly reasons as to why this might be, as many historians and anthropologists have done.  No doubt a hundred years from now, some professor will write a celebrated volume on this year's events.

For now though, there's only one question of primary concern to the United States, and that is: Is this Egyptian revolt a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?  The history of revolutions in general and in the Middle East in particular scream out that it's a very bad thing indeed.

Stand With the People - Even If They're Nuts?

Ever since the Cold War ended, American presidents have had a standard formulation for condemning despotic governments even while dealing with them: they express support for "the people of" the country in question.  In the famous "Axis of Evil" speech, George W. Bush slammed the Iranian mullahs even while distinguishing "the Iranian people" as the victims, not the supporters, of their own thugocracy.  We've heard the same said about the people of Iraq, the people of Afghanistan, the people of Rwanda, Sudan, and the various bits of Yugoslavia.

Sometimes, that may be accurate.  The people of Eastern Europe were disgusted with their Communist leaders and glad to be rid of them.  Today, most of these countries are more-or-less healthy and free.

Is the same true in the Middle East?  It's easy to say that people want to be free, but in Muslim countries, it seems that they don't.  The Iranian revolution replaced a generally enlightened Shah with the oppressive and retrograde rule of religious dictatorship - but most Iranians support their government even though the last election was blatantly stolen.

Afghans didn't much care for the Taliban, but they hated their Russian-backed predecessors even more, and they now hate the terminally corrupt current President Karzai just as much.  What's more, their new Constitution supported by American military might puts Koranic barbarism as the ultimate source of law, and all other religions are classified as illegitimate and illegal.  What sort of "free democracy" is that?

George W. Bush called for democratic reforms in Palestine early in his presidency, which at the time was ruled by the corrupt and ineffective Fatah party.  The elections were held, under international controls to ensure they were free and fair.  The Palestinians, freely and fairly, chose the murderous Hamas terrorist group as their new rulers.

Hamas proceeded to brutally murder any Fatah people who didn't escape to the West Bank poste haste; there haven't been free elections since, and there won't be.  Maybe the world and the Palestinians would have been better off if we'd left well enough alone?

We've talked about unfortunate Turkey - blessed with a wise Founding Father in Kemal Ataturk who carefully set up institutions to defend the government from Islam even though most Turks are Muslim.  This worked for most of the 20th century, but since EU pressures removed the military's ability to override elected Islamists, Turkey's non-Muslims have been getting ever more threatened and its women ever more oppressed.

A democratically elected ruler, and one who isn't.

Which would you rather have?

Somehow, we've made the assumption that democracy = freedom.  It does not.  A clear majority of Pakistanis, Egyptians, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, Syrians, Jordanians, Saudis - and, pretty much, all the way down the list of the 57 states of the Islamic Conference - really, truly wants to be governmentally ruled by the Koran, by mullahs who wield power both spiritual and temporal, and would vote accordingly if given the chance.

This is not unique to Islam.  Remember, Adolf Hitler's Nazi party was voted into power.  Hitler himself was granted total power in a law later passed by the duly elected legislature.

The Horns of the Dilemma

So let's think about an alternative 1933, where a farsighted German general realized Nazi evil and the stupidity of the voters.  Suppose Gen. Fritz had sent in the tanks to arrest newly-installed Chancellor Hitler, throw out the new Nazi legislature, and occupied the Presidential palace himself.

Would the world be better off thanks to his coup?  Of course!  Would Germany have been?  Obviously - particularly those Germans who happened to be Jewish, handicapped, elderly, Christians, gypsies, humane, or members of the armed forces...

Would America have supported Gen. Fritz and recognized his new government?  Of course not - because he overthrew a democratically elected legislature.

In our alternate world, FDR couldn't possibly know the horrors he was being saved from; Churchill stood alone almost through the end of the 1930s in decrying Nazi evil for what it was.

Thanks to Jimmy Carter and his betrayal of the Shah which led to the current Islamic evil axis, Presidents Obama and Bush have no such excuse: We know what happens when Islamists are allowed to take over, even if they do so democratically and with popular support.

President Mubarak is not a perfect guy, any more than Fatah was in Palestine or the Shah in Iran.  Maybe we should have nudged him a bit more, and a bit earlier.

But the time has come to boldly speak the truth that everybody knows but dares not confront: Democracy does not work in Muslim countries - because devout Muslims vote for evil religious dictators who equate human rights with blasphemy, and women's rights with sacrilege.

Simply by virtue of being devout Muslims, honoring the barbaric teachings of the Koran and bowing down before the horrors of Sharia law, the people of the Middle East have proven themselves unable, unready, and unworthy to hold power over their own governments.  Kemal Ataturk tried his best to find a way around this problem, and it almost worked - but three generations under a secular government isn't enough to destroy the Islamic thirst for total power and tyranny.

America does not like to support dictators and despots.  It looks bad.  It makes us feel icky.

If, however, it's a choice between a friendly despot who throws Islamic terrorists and mad mullahs in the black hole where they belong, and a mad mullah sitting on the throne himself with his finger on the missile button - well, we need to pick the despot every time.

Mr. Obama and, sadly, Mr. Bush and Mr. Carter before him, chose the mullahs.  We'll all pay the price.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Yep, here it comes.

A leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt told the Arabic-language Iranian news network Al-Alam on Monday that he would like to see the Egyptian people prepare for war against Israel, according to the Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist.

Muhammad Ghannem reportedly told Al- Alam that the Suez Canal should be closed immediately, and that the flow of gas from Egypt to Israel should cease “in order to bring about the downfall of the Mubarak regime.”

February 1, 2011 1:48 PM

The Economist agreed with us in that George Bush pushed various tyrants towards democracy and that Middle Easterners seem to want it.

However, they disagree with us over Mr. Mubarak:

But despite the ugly scenes mid-week, the developments in Egypt should be welcomed. A downtrodden region is getting a taste of freedom. In the space of a few miraculous weeks, one Middle Eastern autocrat has fallen, and another, who has kept the Arabs’ mightiest country under his thumb for 30 years, is tottering. The 350m-strong Arab world is abuzz with expectation; its ageing autocrats are suddenly looking shaky. These inspiring events recall the universal truth that no people can be held in bondage for ever.

For some in the West, which has tended to put stability above democracy in its dealings with the Middle East, these developments are disturbing. Now that the protests have sucked the life out of Mr Mubarak’s regime, they argue, the vacuum will be filled not by democrats but by chaos and strife or by the Muslim Brothers, the anti-Western, anti-Israeli opposition. They conclude that America should redouble its efforts to secure a lengthy “managed transition” by shoring up either Mr Mubarak or someone like him.

That would be wrong. The popular rejection of Mr Mubarak offers the Middle East’s best chance for reform in decades. If the West cannot back Egypt’s people in their quest to determine their own destiny, then its arguments for democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world stand for nothing. Change brings risks—how could it not after so long?—but fewer than the grim stagnation that is the alternative.

Revolutions do not have to be like those in France in 1789, Russia in 1917 or Iran in 1979. The protests sweeping the Middle East have more in common with the popular colour revolutions that changed the world map in the late 20th century: peaceful (until the government’s thugs turned up), popular (no Robespierre or Trotsky running things behind the scenes), and secular (Islam has hardly reared its head). Driven by the power of its citizens, Egypt’s upheaval could lead to a transformation as benign as those in eastern Europe.

They cite bloody revolutions of the past. They are correct that revolutions don't HAVE to be that way, but most are.

They say Egypt will turn out pretty well. We HOPE that we're wrong and they're right, but history argues against it.

February 5, 2011 7:29 PM

Sarah Palin commenting on Obama's handling Egypt:

“And nobody yet has, nobody yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak and no, not, not real enthused about what it is that that’s being done on a national level and from D.C. in regards to understanding all the situation there in Egypt. And, in these areas that are so volatile right now, because obviously it’s not just Egypt but the other countries too where we are seeing uprisings, we know that now more than ever, we need strength and sound mind there in the White House. We need to know what it is that America stands for so we know who it is that America will stand with. And, we do not have all that information yet.”

February 6, 2011 2:24 PM

And the Times has its say:

What the Muslim Brothers Want
An opposition group says Egypt has more choices than tyranny or secular democracy, which has a firm rejection of religion in public life.

Obama and Egypt's Future
The Facebook generation in Cairo has been betrayed by the Obama administration's wishy-washy stance on supporting democracy in Egypt.

February 10, 2011 7:31 PM
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