Between protracted violence in Iraq, the bloody civil war in Syria, continued instability in Libya, and most recently, the collapse of the Yemeni government and subsequent Saudi-led military incursion, one might be able to make a compelling case for the notion that the Middle East was better off when it was run by dictators. Simply put: as the death toll mounts from the various regional conflicts, one wonders if trading autocratic rule for some semblance of stability isn’t all that bad of a compromise. That said, US foreign policy seems to be everywhere and always inept especially as it relates to the Arab world and as CNN notes, propping up dictatorships at the expense of basic rights and freedoms sows the seeds for violent revolution even as it can serve to keep a fragile status quo intact for long periods of time.
Before 2011, what the West most valued in the Middle East was stability rather than democracy. Arab dictatorships were tolerated for decades despite their cruelty because they served Western economic, political, and security interests.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was seen as the bulwark of peace with Israel. In Libya, a reformed Moammar Gadhafi was courted for potential investment and trade agreements. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad was a predictable leader who maintained the Golan Heights as a conflict-free zone. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh was regarded as an ally against al Qaeda.
Dictatorships kept the status quo manageable. Government suppression of activism and of the alternative voices of civil society and independent media meant that top-down decisions were rarely contested. This pretty much guaranteed that Western interests would be served without too many complications.
In return, Arab dictators enjoyed Western financial and military aid and political reassurances. Yemen was the epitome of this dynamic. Saleh courted and was courted by American diplomats who turned a blind eye to his transgressions, from arms smuggling to forcing new businesses to include him as a "partner" so that he could ensure a cut in the profits, while most Yemenis lived below the bread line…
When the reality of living under dictatorships became exposed with the Arab Spring, the West could no longer ignore it and had to publicly declare support for the uprisings. But the West did not have a long-term strategy for handling the aftermath of dictatorships -- and the results have been catastrophic.
Libya saw hasty international military intervention without a vision for stabilizing the country, and today is falling apart. Syria saw diplomatic toing and froing that eventually dragged the West into a messy war.
Yemen was for a while thought of as an acceptable compromise because of the Gulf Cooperation Council's initiative that ended the uprising through a negotiated transition from Saleh to his deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. But the long-term implications for this transition were ignored and Yemen today is paying the price…
But the current misery in the Middle East still does not mean that the region was better off under dictatorships. The aftermath of dictatorships is always messy, and democratic transition is never linear.
Those with nostalgia for the days of Arab strongmen should remember that autocratic regimes plant the seed of future unrest and therefore only offer false, temporary security -- even if "temporary" takes a few decades to pass.
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It's abundantly clear at this point that whatever "temporary security" the region "enjoyed" under iron-fisted autocrats is now long gone and it now appears that the blowback from Washington's Middle East policies could result in not one, but two proxy wars: one between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen and the other between the US and Russia in Syria. As one US diplomat recently put it:
"You have civil wars, you have proxy wars. You have regional wars all in one and these things have so many logs on the fire, to use the metaphor, that they ... burn and burn and burn for a long time."