In the Middle East, full tyranny has dominated since about 1970, when rulers learned how to insulate themselves against the prior generation’s coups d’état. Hafez al-Assad, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hosni Mubarak, and the Algerian regime demonstrated with rare flamboyance the nature of full-blown stasis.
Then, last December, a butterfly flapped its wings in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid (population: 40,000), when a policewoman slapped a fruit vendor. The response toppled three tyrants in eleven months, with two more in serious jeopardy.
Summing up the West’s policy dilemma vis-à-vis the Middle East:
• Democracy pleases us but brings hostile elements to power.
• Tyranny betrays our principles but leaves pliable rulers in power.
As interest conflicts with principle, consistency goes out the window. Policy wavers between Scylla and Charybdis. Western chanceries focus on sui generis concerns: security interests (the U.S. Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain), commercial interests (oil in Saudi Arabia), geography (Libya is ideal for Europe-based air sorties), the neighbors (the Turkish role in Syria), or staving off disaster (a prospect in Yemen). Little wonder policy is a mess.
Policy guidelines are needed; here follows my suggested triad:
Aim to improve the behavior of tyrants whose lack of ideology or ambition makes them pliable. They will take the easiest road, so join together to pressure them to open up.
Always oppose Islamists, whether al-Qaeda types as in Yemen or the suave and “moderate” ones in Tunisia. They represent the enemy. When tempted otherwise, ask yourself whether cooperation with “moderate” Nazis in the 1930s would have been a good idea.
Help the liberal, secular, and modern elements — those who in the first place stirred up the upheavals of 2011. Assist them eventually to come to power, so that they can salvage the politically sick Middle East from its predicament and move it in a democratic and free direction.