Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Defending the indefensible

High profile Burmese democracy activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi just spent her 62nd birthday under house arrest - her 17th such year under detention. Over the past 17 years, I'm sure she's had ample time to consider the nature of her erstwhile friends in Western democracies that (at least ostensibly) champion her cause, as well as that of her jailers, the junta of generals led by Burma's de facto dictator Than Shwe.

Aung San Suu Kyi isn't the cause célèbre she was in the early 1990's, but if anything, political freedoms and human rights have gotten even worse since she won her Nobel Prize. So what gives? Who's got her back now? Frankly, who's got the back of dissidents in dictatorships who are paying the price of speaking out? Why are things getting worse in places like Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe instead of better?

A large part of the problem is that dictators are never at a loss for enablers, both in Western governments and academia. For every US State Department press release denouncing conditions in a dictatorship, or university professor leading a candlelight vigil on the behalf of some dictator's unhappy subject, there are twice as many people urging "caution" and "moderation" towards dictatorial regimes. Why? For a number of ridiculous reasons.

The first is the hoary old realpolitik workhouse of stability. The theory goes that if the world puts heavy pressure on dictators, or worse, removes them altogether, the country will collapse into economic free fall or wanton violence without the strongman holding it all together. In fact, you could even call it the Saddam argument in light of what's going on in Iraq. You've probably even heard this argument from people you know: "Sure, Saddam was a bloodthirsty monster, but gee whiz, without him, those little brown people over there will just kill each other non-stop."

The problem with this argument is that the world's most destabilized places are already dictatorships. To go back to our first example, Burma is already rife with "destabilizing" violence in the form of endless ethnic civil wars, replete with attempts at ethnic cleansing, and innumerable narco-terrorist warlords both on the government and rebel sides. 80% of the world's present armed conflicts are instigated by and between autocratic regimes, and a nearly equal percentage of the planet's armed civil wars are taking place inside countries run by dictators. Preserving the dictatorship does not, has not, and will not restore "stability" to these regimes, precisely because dictators are the ones instigating the mayhem in the first place.

The second argument is that that dictatorships can be eased away from totalitarianism into the warm, fuzzy fold of liberal democracy. You've doubtlessly heard this argument before as applied to China. "Sure, China is a one-party dictatorship, but if they open up to the outside world, political reform is inevitable!" Supporters of this concept point to Spain and South Korea, former dictatorships that are now democracies. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the social and political factors that transformed Spain and South Korea into democracies, and ignores the fact that economic and political co-operation with the outside world didn't play much of a role in that transformation.

In fact, dictators are keener observers of the politics of appeasement than the allegedly enlightened politicians who pay lip service to their ouster. Has Kim Jong-Il suffered one iota for his nuclear gamesmanship? He squeezed fuel, food and countless concessions from the six party talks, and wound up obtaining nuclear weapons anyway. He remains in control of North Korea, and what's more, the sanctions slapped on North Korea after his deceit was revealed largely only hurt his already poor and malnourished populace, a group who Kim already regards with complete disinterest. Similarly, Western attempts for "constructive engagement" with Omar al-Bashir on Darfur are treated as signs of lunacy in Khartoum. Why, it's almost as if dictators think that the sight of powerful Western governments begging dictators pitiably to behave themselves is a sign of weakness.

They're right, of course. Most dictators do not operate in an isolationist vacuum, but their interests always do, and the overweening interest of any dictator is staying in power for as long as humanly possible without being murdered or deposed. Saddam Hussein prided himself for his ability to play the international appeasement game, both during the Iran-Iraq war, the aftermath of the first Gulf War, and during the weapons of mass destruction crisis that led to the laughable oil for food program. Saddam came away from each of these events as the winner, until he suddenly found himself on the gallows.

That, sadly, is the point where the game is up. Removing a dictator does not guarantee freedom or prosperity, this is true. However, leaving one in power guarantees the absence of both. We know this, so the question remains: why do we continue to defend, however weakly, the completely indefensible?

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