The Era of U.S.-Approved, Iron-Fisted Arab Dictators Is Over
NOWHERE IN the world have the latest shocks to the Old Order been more powerful than in the Middle East and North Africa, where massive civic turmoil has swept away long-entrenched leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, toppled a despot in Libya and now challenges the status quo in Syria. Over the past sixty years, the only other development of comparable game-changing magnitude was the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.
It isn’t clear where the region is headed, but it is clear that its Old Order is dying. That order emerged after World War II, when the Middle East’s colonial powers and their proxies were upended by ambitious new leaders stirred by the force and promise of Arab nationalism. Over time, though, their idealism gave way to corruption and dictatorial repression, and much of the region slipped into economic stagnation, unemployment, social frustration and seething anger.
For decades, that status quo held, largely through the iron-fisted resolve of a succession of state leaders throughout the region who monopolized their nations’ politics and suppressed dissent with brutal efficiency. During the long winter of U.S.-Soviet confrontation, some of them also positioned themselves domestically by playing the Cold War superpowers against each other.
The United States was only too happy to play the game, even accepting and supporting authoritarian regimes to ensure free-flowing oil, a Soviet Union held at bay and the suppression of radical Islamist forces viewed as a potential threat to regional stability. Although successive U.S. presidents spoke in lofty terms about the need for democratic change in the region, they opted for the short-term stability that such pro-American dictators provided. And they helped keep the strongmen in power with generous amounts of aid and weaponry.