Conventional wisdom has it that Western states should support dictatorships in many parts of the world because they are bulwarks of stability. That is, dictatorships are somewhat predictable, easier to bargain with than multiparty democracies or dysfunctional failed states, and they represent known quantities. This is often characterised as a broadly good but imperfect arrangement in an imperfect world because alternatives are few and often risky for politicians.
Western states deal with dictatorships out of perceived necessity and they sometimes develop surprisingly strong strategic bonds despite vast differences in political culture and agenda. Thus, for instance, we may say that the Chinese government is a dictatorship and one generally opposed to Western power and values in many respects but it is a dictatorship we think we understand. We are used to Chinese idiosyncrasies, its strategy is consistent, we know who the major players are, we think we know what they want (most of the time at least) and we can accept a world with such dictatorships because a world without them would be unfamiliar, potentially more chaotic and even less friendly.
The multitude of dictatorship across the developing world also means that dictators are present in most major international organisations, they have a hand in crafting international laws and treaties and they are holders of a large amount of economic and military power. Dealing with dictators is simply something Western bureaucrats and politicians accept in international politics, so much so that the term “dictator” has taken on an entirely new meaning for the Western political class. “Dictator” is now a term of abuse, code for “a leader we dislike” whilst “partner”, “ally”, “reformer”, or even “friend” are terms used to describe dictators we support.
Saudi Arabian kings are not dictators, they are “partners” regardless of how many liberals or democrats they flog. Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator but an “ally”, irrespective of how many protestors took to Tahrir Square in the Arab Spring. Even major journalistic outlets must now ask the questions as to whether China’s leaders are “dictators” or “reformers”, as though bringing about economic growth is the same as letting people vote.
In the eyes of a modern, Western politician or diplomat it seems that only thing that can make you a dictator is not working with the West in the War on Terror, and even then just paying lip service and maintaining the semblance of plausible deniability on terrorist activities is generally enough. The Saudis and Pakistanis have happily played a double game on terrorism for decades and their activities will continue to be largely glossed over as long their fingerprints aren’t directly on the guns and their spokespersons line up, side by side with Western (American) representatives to cynically denounce terrorism in all its forms.
Typically, the support for dictators usually comes in three forms; trade and investment, international legitimacy, and security agreements. We trade with dictatorships and invest in their economies, hence petrol dollars or mercantilist trade policies have long kept dictators from Beijing to Libya supplied with enough hard currency and economic growth to appease certain powerbrokers and suppress the malcontents. International legitimacy is also important, and many dictatorships reap the benefits of access to international organisations and enjoy the prestige of having their representatives rub elbows with other recognised leaders. Finally, dictatorships are often perennially insecure and benefit from powerful friends who can guarantee their safety from external attack or provide them the means to protect themselves – including from their own people. Hence, the support of Western states and more powerful dictatorships has been critical to the survival of many of the world’s worst minor dictators, and foreign companies’ weapons and expertise are highly prized by the militaries and domestic security agencies of dictatorships.
Of these three broad categories, security agreements are the most morally problematic and controversial. Whilst occasional boycotts of some countries goods do happen, most people tend to accept the need to trade with all regime types and many people are openly opposed to sanctions because they harm the producer, not the dictator. Likewise, many people accept diplomacy with dictators as necessary. However, when that diplomacy becomes outright support for a dictatorial regime things get murky.
Whenever the wisdom of supporting dictatorships with security agreements comes up in Western academic or political circles we are confronted with the same tired policy defences. The central claim of Western governments remains that they have to support “stability”, in whatever form they can find it, rather than let the world descend into abject chaos. That would be fair enough if there were any evidence this commodity they call “stability” was best achieved through dictators, that current policies were working, or that stability itself actually served the greater good in some tangible way.
Western states, particularly the USA, have fallen into the trap of viewing stability in the Middle East as their responsibility and, furthermore, see the lack of stability as a function of the level of external (Western) support for regional powers. For instance, Saudi Arabia is thought of as vulnerable and, therefore, it needs more Western help to destroy its external enemies – ISIS and Iranian influence. The possibility that Saudi Arabia has so many enemies because of the kind of regime it is, or that its influence on the region is as pernicious as Iran’s is rarely entertained. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta even kept a straight face when he explained how the Saudi’s see the Iranians as “force for evil in the region”, as though there is much daylight between what those regimes do (Iran is probably the more liberal). In the same interview, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley even positively appraised Saudi Arabia’s role in Afghanistan, as though even with hindsight that disastrous series of conflicts is a tick on the Saudi-U.S. partnership.
Recently, Vice-President Biden had to apologise to Saudi Arabia and its neighbours for suggesting, accurately, that they had helped make ISIS a threat. Even as Saudi Arabia keeps oil prices low to kill off Western shale oil industries and retake market share, most analysts actually use oil as the excuse for keeping Saudi Arabia as a partner. That’s right, Saudi Arabia is sponsoring terrorism so we need to support it to stop terrorists; the Saudis sponsor a religious war in the Middle East so we had better help them fight Iran; the Saudis are killing off other states’ oil industries so we better protect their (our) oil there.
Occasionally, when a dictator falls out of favour we find the Western hawks lining up to support regime change, yet even in these cases the goals and methods of bringing down dictators are so primitive and often counter-productive that we must question why we should bother. Bashar al-Assad, a bad man to be sure, fell out of favour during the Arab Spring and if it wasn’t for his foreign (Russian) supplied air defences he could have faced an air campaign as Colonel Gaddafi did in Libya. Of course, the rise of ISIS has made the West change their tune on Assad, and now we are politely informing him of when and where we are bombing his enemies in Syria.
Even when someone is smart enough to bring up the contradictions of Western “reconciliation” with a dictator like Assad, the strategy is often confused. The standard line is that a victory for Assad will be an Iranian victory and that it will lead to the toppling of Sunni regimes across the region, including our Saudi friends. How having Shia dictatorships in Shia states will make the region worse than having Sunni dictatorships in Sunni states is unclear, as are the reasons why Sunni states should be exempt from defending themselves against this supposedly terrible aggressor.
It should be said that the West has become less optimistic about regime change since the Arab Spring. The chaos that now envelopes Libya stands as a reminder that even the best intentions can give birth to catastrophic outcomes yet, amazingly, the myth persists that outsiders are really able to positively shape the destiny of the Middle East and North Africa. Actually, not only is there little evidence that propping up dictators has a positive outcome, there are plenty of cases where foreign (Western) support for dictators doesn’t help stability.
Gaddafi was supported by Western states for years before his regime fell, with European companies even supplying him with weapons to use against the restive populace. Support aside, his regime fell. Likewise, in Egypt Hosni Mubarak enjoyed long-standing Western support and seemed to keep it long into the protest movement of the Arab Spring. Support aside, his regime fell. Conversely, Iran and North Korea are both heavily assailed by Western sanctions and attempts to undermine their domestic regimes and international legitimacy, and yet, opposition aside, they stand firmly as ever.
Today, as the Middle Eastern quagmires thicken once again, a new question is being tentatively asked – should Western states, particularly the USA, drop their alliances with the Sunni monarchies and realign with Iran? That would, according to one school of thought, be the best thing for stability, though one wonders if the pro-Iranian version of supporting stability will look anything like the pro-Sunni version.
Instead of asking which dictator we should align with, and which enemy of our enemy we should help bomb this time, we should be asking how much anti-terrorism efforts are helped by cooperation with dictators as opposed to good policing. We should ask how much it is worth to us fighting wars for the Saudis as opposed to working towards those technologies that don’t supply our enemies with money whilst destroying our own environments and economies. We should be asking if it is in our long-term interests to protect people who use our oil money to fund political radicalism in the developing world and seek global Islamization. We should also be asking if the enemies of our enemies are our friends, and exploring the possibility that the world of the liberal-democracies can exist without the moral hazards of actively assisting dictators in the name of stability.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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