by Barry Rubin
Readers often ask why it is that threatened by
One reader wrote: These despots don’t seem cunning to me at all.
But that’s flat wrong. They are very cunning and if you understand how, you can begin to comprehend the
These rulers’ most important priority is regime survival. The people’s well-being and country’s interest is secondary at best. To stay in power, a dictatorship needs to generate foreign enemies, reduce freedom and monopolize economic wealth. This is, in many ways, the opposite of the Western democratic view that a government which provides freedom and material benefits for its citizens is the one most likely to stay in power.
To ensure regime survival, the dictatorship must protect its Muslim and Arab credentials. Using these two pillars in various combinations, rulers mobilize the people. A key way to do this is anti- Western and anti-Israel demagoguery: The government portrays itself as a champion of Islam and Arabism against demonic foes.
What the West does in response is unimportant to a populace that already views it as an enemy and whose information about the outside world is filtered through regime and ideological propaganda.
In these dictatorships, the army’s main purpose is to support the regime rather than win wars. The main purpose of the educational system and media is to glorify the regime, not tell the truth and help fix its problems. The economy’s main purpose is to provide the regime with assets for rewarding friends and punishing enemies, not to create prosperity or raise living standards.
This approach provides neither rapid progress nor better lives for the people. But if you start with the original premise – keeping the regime in power comes first – everything makes sense.
NOW LET’S move to a more advanced stage. Here’s a paraphrase of a letter from another reader which parallels the first one: “Given that Israel is not the only country in the Middle East that feels threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that Israel is likely to be the only country that has the political will to do anything about the situation, doesn’t this give Israel a considerable strategic advantage? It strikes me that a number of demands could be made upon
This is a very good question. But the answer is no. Why? Because there is little or no give and take. If Arab regimes get something from
The same point, by the way, applies to US-Arab state relations. Of course, the
Why? Are the regimes stupid or irrational? No, they are following their interests as they perceive them. True, one day they may pay a high cost for their policies, but so far they’ve survived pretty well. The exception is Saddam Hussein in
Of course, they can hope that
And they have still another reason for acting this way: The West lets them get away with it. When they choose between fearing the
If you tell them they would be better off if they went to a more Western-style system, they would reply that this is not their culture; their masses might not like it; and their rivals at home and abroad would portray them as traitors. Arab elites watched what happened in the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. The West cheered a peaceful change for freedom; Arab regimes shivered at the thought of anarchy and their own downfall.
So, is this system pragmatic? Yes and no. It is not pragmatic in terms of keeping people happy through freedom and high living standards. It is pragmatic in judging that demagoguery and control are alternative means of securing passivity or even outright support for the regime. It is pragmatic in achieving the main goal: stability and regime maintenance.
Homework: Apply this model to Palestinian politics. In this framework, why isn’t the Palestinian Authority as eager for a complete peace settlement and an independent state through compromise as one would expect using a Western model of politics?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in
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