Balancing Act

Oliver Willis asks a very good question about America’s role in the world and our support for dictatorships. Oliver argues:

America has to be consistent. When we proclaim that we’re bringing democracy to the world, we can’t have countries lined up as our allies who oppress their people. People like Al Qaeda, etc. have no legitimate axe to grind – BUT – it is our duty to make their calls to arms fall on deaf ears via our actions. When Al Qaeda and Co. say we are the Great Satan and that we are to blame for the lack of freedom in the mideast, the people of the world must be able to look at the reality of the situation and tell Al Qaeda that they are full of it.
We have to lead.

This surely seems like a good argument to me. It’s difficult for me to justify our support for places like Egypt or Uzbekistan, both of which are dictatorships for all intents and purposes, irrespective of the occasional show-election put on for the benefit of the international community. When we argue that we want freedom and democracy for Iraq, but turn around and prop up (or at least provide diplomatic support) to dictatorships, it’s not hard for people to see the disconnect. The dichotomy certainly doesn’t prove that we’re not sincere about our desire for the spread of democracy, but it sure gives the appearance of hypocracy. How many people will give our arguments about freedom and democracy credence as long as we support dictators who deny those things to their people year-in and year-out?

But then I come around to the questions of real politik. If we pull our support for Egypt, they could easy repudiate the Camp David agreement and return to the days of being a dedicated foe of Israel, as well as putting more of their energy into supporting terrorism. If we put pressure on Pervez Musharraf to democratize now, we’d run a very real risk of seeing a nuclear-armed Islamofascist state in short order. Uzbekistan’s cooperation was a crucial factor in our invasion of Afghanistan. In order to carry on our fight against Islamofascism, there are a number of dictatorships that could be of great help to us in the war.

So where do you draw the line? It’s easy to argue that we should just make it simple for outselves and not provide any support, economic, moral, or otherwise, to any country headed by a dictator. It’s almost as easy to say that we have to be practical, so we should just take our allies where we find them and focus on winning the war in Iraq first before seeking out new problem areas.

As powerful as we are (and I include our most important allies, England, Australia, and Poland, as part of ‘we’), we can’t fight the whole world at once. We’ve got to pick our battles carefully, choosing the most important fight and winning it before moving on. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should simply put on blinders and drive mindlessly towards our immediate goal with no thought towards the consequences of accepting help from regimes that typify the very problems we’re fighting elsewhere. That may have the advantage of being easy, but it’s far too likely to cause new problems when all is said and done.

I think the best we can do is to carefully start separating ourselves from nations like Egypt and Uzbekistan. It may be possible for us to use whatever influence we have with them to convince them to begin a program of political liberalization. Otherwise, we should look to start withdrawing any perception of American support for those countries, as long as such a withdrawal doesn’t risk creating larger problems for us in the war. That may mean we’re stuck with Pakistan’s Musharraf, for example, because as bad as it is for us to appear allied to a dictator, Islamofascists with nukes is significantly worse. But that kind of decision has to be the exception, rather than the rule, if we’re to win the larger war.


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