The US has a history of embracing a lot of not-so-benevolent dictators. We also are swiftly establishing a history of promoting “regime change” with visions of democracy dancing in our heads, but what emerges instead is all too often a dangerous brand of Islamic extremism.
Back in the 1970s and at the height of the Cold War, the US was known for cozying up to brutal Latin American dictators as a pragmatic, if morally questionable, way to keep the “Godless Commies” of the USSR out of our geopolitical back yard. This policy dated back at least as far as FDR, who once said of Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”
Well, those days are behind us… right?
Wrong. We are pretty quiet about it, but we still cozy up to those dictators who actually have something to offer us. Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is no Mr. Nice Guy, but he does have a secular, stable government in a country that borders Afghanistan. Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov of Turkmenistan is an autocrat who openly opposes any move toward democracy, but he has a stable, secular government which borders Afghanistan (and can refine some 237,000 barrels of oil per day). Pervez Musharraf, who was in charge of Pakistan at the time the Afghanistan war started, had seized power in a military coup and was therefore ineligible for US aid, but of course… the port of Karachi, highways to the Khyber Pass, and an oil refinery here and there can work wonders for a relationship. I could go on, but you get the idea. We still have that pragmatic streak when it is necessary.
But while we are doing all this mutual back-scratching with useful dictators, we go around loudly trumpeting the joys of “democracy building” and promoting “regime change” to remove oppressive dictators like… let’s say, Bashar Al-Assad of Syria.
Yeah, so how’s that working out for us? Anyone notice that unprogrammed “regime change” is almost always accompanied by instability? And that the elements that make the biggest advances in unstable situations are often the most aggressive, the most virulent, the most intimidating… in other words, something no better than, and often even worse than, the previous dictator?
Toppling a dictator is one thing. The problem is that it is impossible to direct the chaos that follows, and the result you want is almost never the result you actually get.
So back to Assad. Yeah, the Arab Spring was rolling along in 2011, and we had grand thoughts about democracy bursting out all over the Middle East (it didn’t, by the way). Among many other countries, Syria soon experienced popular uprisings – and we welcomed those developments. Silly us. Syria is now a textbook case of instability leading to complete chaos, with the government fighting against several different rebel groups which are also in conflict with each other.
Enter the “Islamic State,” a group known also as ISIS or ISIL or IS. Check out the most recent Wiki map of their area of control, which straddles Syria and Iraq (and it has gotten rather large… indeed, country-sized). These would be the goons who have been beheading American journalists, who are quickly establishing a de facto government, and who openly claim the goal of a Caliphate stretching from China to Europe. Their motto: “Remaining and Expanding.” Scary, huh?
It would be comforting to dismiss the IS as just another nonstate actor, just another group of thugs; but they are frighteningly successful, largely because they seem to provide the security and stability that war-weary people crave. Check out Mariam Karouny’s Reuters article: the IS is NOT just a bunch of violent thugs, not any more. It has a military arm, and a civilian government. It has appointed officials to oversee finances, salaries, pensions, contributions to the poor. And it seems to have learned from some of the stupider mistakes the US made in Iraq: whereas we furloughed any and every government worker who was a Baath Party member, thus losing their expertise and wreaking havoc on Iraq’s infrastructure, the IS has retained former Assad employees to competently manage the existing infrastructure and keep the population supplied with water and electricity. This is what makes it so dangerous to us: it is attractive to a lot of the people who have fallen under its control. At least, more attractive than what they have been putting up with.
There are different types of freedom. Personal freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom are among them. IS and its repressive brand of Islam impinges on all of these, and is therefore anathema to us. But what of security? Food security, physical security, personal security, economic security? Most people crave security more than they crave freedom; haven’t we seen this in the US? Fearmongering after 9/11 has led many of us to willingly, or at least passively, give up some of our rights in the face of overweening surveillance and security in the wake of 9/11. Now multiply that many-fold: if you are a civilian who has personally and repeatedly suffered the ravages of civil war, occupying forces, food shortages, violence, unpredictability… and then a group comes in and provides a working infrastructure, some kind of peace (at least locally), and alms for the poor… well, who would you support?
This is a stark illustration of why the US needs to re-think its more recent policies of promoting “regime change” in the name of spreading democracy, peace, love and flowers all over the world. The only flower that our “regime change” policies have bought us in the Middle East is the flowering of Islamic extremism, and what a rotten flower that is. Were Saddam and Assad still in full control of Iraq and Syria, that flower would never have had a chance to take root.
So yes, dictators have their uses, even if it is not readily apparent to us.
Lila has a background in National Security and served over 20 years in the military, including intelligence and policy positions at the Pentagon.