Stability’s a Good Thing, Isn’t It?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
7 May 2015
Who doesn’t want stability? If there is anything feared by virtually all humans, it is living in anarchy, chaos, lawlessness. When you can’t even go out to buy a loaf of bread without risking your life. When times are troubled political leaders naturally promise law and order as the quickest way to gain mass support.
As Obama moves to what looks like a historic and strategic shift in our relationship to Iran, insecure rulers, particularly in the Gulf, are demanding the US provide them with “security.” We need to resist the temptation to underwrite autocratic protection. But that doesn’t come naturally to us.
Great powers asserting global interests rank stability high in their pantheon of goals: if you’re trying to run the world, you don’t want too many surprises. You don’t need people rocking the boat of empire. The US has basically been a champion of stability, law and order around the world for long decades—except when it decides to overthrow enemies, or friends of enemies, by provoking disorder in their backyards. The British Empire ran things very much the same way, and even the Soviet Empire in many respects: predictability of the global order offers empires the greatest comfort and control.
It therefore comes as no surprise to regularly hear demands, especially from conservative Washington think tanks, for the US to “preserve stability” in the Middle East. Such calls hardly raise an eyebrow in the US press; it is the accepted wisdom of how the US operates.
But should we assume that the quest for stability is an absolute good? No problems attached? Doesn’t our automatic support for stability actually underlie many of the deeper problems of US policy around the world?
Perhaps a better way to pose the question is, “preserve stability at what cost?” At the cost of political stagnation, lack of change or progress or greater empowerment of populations angry with their leaderships? Even George W Bush astonishingly admitted at one juncture that “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.” He was right on that – although his own response was to launch multiple wars. Democracy is always a punishment for our enemies, never a gift to our friends.
In fact, there is no easy answer to this conundrum. One thing is certain: there will be more Middle Eastern turmoil down the road in the slow transition to greater democratic governance supported by the people. The process may even lurch one step backwards with each two steps forward. It will not be pretty in many cases. But surely no one believes that hiring dictators for life to keep the lid on is going to bring long range stability. It will just as likely bring more uprisings and revolution, in part resembling the paroxysms of the Arab Spring.
Was the Arab Spring “a good thing?” That’s a tough question. Frankly, if I were a resident of Libya, or Syria, or Yemen, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Somalia, and my family’s welfare were my chief priority, I’m not sure that staying the course with Saddam Hussain or Mu’ammar Qadhafi or Asad or other distasteful dictators might not have been the safest way for me. People aren’t given to taking the long-term historical perspective when there is blood in the street.
The reality is that most of the region desperately needs reform and change. There are many entrenched regimes that will not go easily. Reform and change almost surely entails rioting, disorders, challenge to authorities. It could be bloody—and indeed has already been bloody. Revolution, including the American, always involves shedding a much blood and throwing out the foreign enemy. The French, Russian and Chinese revolutions were all extremely bloody affairs. When is revolution “worth it?” And to whom?
The people in the region themselves are the ones who will have to decide how to take on these entrenched regimes. The real question for the US is how quickly should it agree to support such oppressive and undemocratic regimes that block progress towards more modern governance, political orders where the people have some modicum of voice over their destinies. But even democracy is not a panacea—deep paralyzing tensions can continue to exist.
So Washington must not slip back into the old Cold War mentality in which dictators offering stability receive our automatic nod of approval. It’s not enough to point to White House or State Department spokespersons who occasionally gently chide rulers for not observing democratic norms. That’s just the feel-good rhetoric that really masks the main thrust of our policies that still support the kings and presidents-for-life.
“Realists” will argue that these rulers represent the political reality of the region; like it or not we have to do business with them. Perhaps, but that way, aren’t we simply kicking the can of representative government down the road indefinitely, because it’s not “convenient” or “practical” to oppose them? Even if change thwarted may next time be more violent and radical? Even ISIS draws on such frustrations, while offering only bogus answers.
But such US “realism” in the past has deprived regional peoples the chance to gain political experience and maturity. Interventionism serves to keep populations in a long-term state of political adolescence. It may take many iterations of chaotic transitions until they begin to get things right. It should not be our role to “stabilize” through immediate support to the “stabilizer.” Indeed, the region needs to go its own way in most cases, and not be made the cockpit of yet another proxy war. Obama needs to be very careful, for example, in the kind of “guarantees” that the US will provide to autocratic GCC states running against the forces of change.
“Realists” may object that if we don’t support such dictators, other, less fastidious states will have no qualms in supporting them, perhaps to our detriment. Yet at this stage in world history the bipolar Cold War is over. There is no single state in the world whose increased influence in the region should be disastrous to the US—not Russia, not China, not Iran, or even France. Geopolitical balances will emerge. Besides, the US has shown singular lack of skill—as have most other interventionist powers—in successfully bending events decisively to our benefit in the past. That won’t change.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com