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Secular dictator vs. Islamist theocracy?

Posted by Richard on April 20, 2006

The advocates of realpolitik, such as Brent Scowcroft, have always argued that our interests in the Middle East are best served by more or less secular "strongmen" or dictators who can be persuaded (bribed or coerced) to accommodate those interests. Democratization, they’ve argued, runs the risk of bringing to power Islamic fundamentalists. Recently, they’ve pointed to Hamas’ victory in the PA elections, the success of Shi’ite fundamentalists in Iraq, and the electoral strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Quentin Langley wrote an interesting article about this line of thinking, which he calls the Hillaire Belloc fallacy. He said the realpolitik policy made sense during the Cold War (I disagree), but not today:

During the Cold War, the west co-operated with some unsavoury dictatorships. "He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard" was the motto in the corridors of power. And faced with a foe like the Soviet Union, massively armed with nuclear and conventional forces, and bent on world domination, this was a reasonable policy.

Outside the Cold War context, the situation changes dramatically. We no longer have the same reason to support dictatorships which are aligned against communism, and neither Russia nor the US has any need to support insurgents against each other’s allies.

And yet, we still have enemies. There may be no Soviet Union, but there is still Al Qaeda. If an Arab dictator falls, it could still be worse for the west. The silky smooth voices of the diplomatic establishment still whisper the words of Hillaire Belloc: "always keep ahold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse".

This is exactly what Arab dictators want us to believe. … It is what they say to western diplomats all the time. But it isn’t what they really think. President Mubarak of Egypt wants the west to THINK he is worried about the Muslim Brotherhood. But what really keeps him awake at night is the thought that western liberal democracy might infect his country.

Langley pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me, but that makes perfect sense: Hosni Mubarak made sure that the Muslim Brotherhood would win a handful of seats and appear threatening to us. Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood are allies of convenience against their common enemies: middle-class Egyptians clamoring for freedom, progress, and democracy, and the Americans who share their goals.

Langley has quite a bit of interesting stuff (I’ve added him to my blogroll). Check out also his April 12 article, Clear trends in Iraqi violence — the numbers he cites must be startling to anyone who’s relied on the legacy media reports about the situation in Iraq.

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