Mark Palmer wants, quite literally, to save the world. His new book is titled Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How To Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025 (Rowman & Littlefield, 320 pages, $27.95); for Palmer, the “real” Axis of Evil extends to the forty-five dictators who now rule countries ranked by Freedom House as Not Free. Though no one would call this a modest goal, the list does exclude strongmen who control Partly Free countries — Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, for example — so the plan is in fact to oust only the worst dictators. (One might also debate how much further this “real” Axis extends beyond the one alluded to in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address; contrary to popular belief, Bush never limited the Axis to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, but rather said that “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil.”)
Palmer is comfortable with military engagement, and indeed says that “contrary to common wisdom, force should not always be considered a last resort.” But his heart is with the sort of nonviolent struggles that he witnessed, and nurtured, as Ambassador to Hungary in the 1980s when the Iron Curtain fell. Military force, for Palmer, is a tool to be used in conjunction with the nonviolent opposition to tyranny that most of his book focuses on. He explores a vast toolbox for democrats, both outside and inside democracy, examining the techniques available for nudging closed societies open, and listing at one point 198 methods of nonviolent action (including, for instance, 23 types of strike and 25 types of economic boycott). For activists, this portion of the book is a remarkable resource.
Palmer has specific suggestions for working to oust the “Forty-Five Least Wanted,” all within the framework of the most problematic plank of his agenda: the creation of an united front of democracies, built on a consensus that the spread of democracy is a critical security goal. Palmer himself has been integral in the creation of the Community of Democracies. (Don’t feel dumb if you haven’t heard of it; though 110 governments participated in the CD’s second meeting in Seoul in November 2002 — which yielded little more than an uncontroversial endorsement of political freedom as a concept — it received almost no attention outside of the South Korean capital.) Palmer admits that CD is a work in progress, but he envisions it as a muscular force for democracy promotion — a strong caucus in the United Nations, a broad security alliance — and calls on it to endorse “all out and universal democracy by 2025” as its goal. Palmer would thus like to upend the traditional fastidiousness about interfering in other countries’ affairs and declare dictatorship itself a crime against humanity.
Palmer understands that this would mean a sea change in international practices, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he not only underestimates the depth of division within the worlds democracies, but fundamentally misunderstands those divisions. Writing of the efficacy of international criminal tribunals, he asks:
“Why then are so many in Washington so heavily opposed to the establishment of an International Criminal Court (ICC)? It is clearly because of concern that governments not committed to the rule of law would have judges on the court, could destroy the court’s integrity, and could end up trying the United States and American soldiers for alleged crimes committed in the course of promoting democracy and peace. One way to address this dilemma is for the United States to try to convince other members of the CD that judges on the ICC should only come from countries that do respect the rule of law — namely the world’s democracies.”
But the state of the world’s democracies is such that politics in any given democracy is often most clearly delineated by the varying degrees of anti-Americanism or pro-Americanism of opposing factions. Palmer’s plan to keep Syrian or Chinese judges off the court misses the point: the fact that they come from democratic nations hardly makes it wise for the U.S. to trust judges from France or Belgium.
That he misunderstands the world’s democracies casts a shadow of doubt over Palmer’s judgments on its dictators. His experience in Hungary, and examples of similarly activist American ambassadors, lead him to advocate the use of embassies as “freedom houses” that use their influence to aid democrats within a dictatorships. Palmer had success with Karoly Grosz in Hungary and Smith Hempstone was successful at nudging concessions from the Kenyan strongman Daniel arap Moi, and he suggests that Ambassadors should engage dictators in an effort to convince them of the benefits of allowing democracy and retiring gracefully, versus facing jail or hanging after an ouster. Palmer admits that this won’t work with some dictators, but insists it’s worth the effort.
BUT EVEN WHEN DICTATORS are ousted, is that, as Palmer tends to imply, the end of the story? In another new book, Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators (Walker & Co., 224 pages, $22) the Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio’s interviews, mixed with liberal helpings of history and travelogue, suggest that the answer is often no. Orizio’s subjects, all of them deposed former dictators (or in some cases their wives), seem in several cases, propelled forward by their own megalomania, quite a bit less than ready for a quiet retirement.
An unrepentant Nexhmije Hoxha, the “Black Widow” of the late Albanian tyrant Enver Hoxha, is out of jail and talking like she’s up for another revolt: “The forces of obscurantism have destroyed the Socialist system in Albania with barbarous ferocity and have also destroyed our industry and our wealth.” Jean-Claude Duvalier is biding his time in France, ready to return to Haiti (where his father remains a voodoo deity) if the Aristide government should falter; there’s even a Baby Doc website, though there’s no content there at the moment. And the man who during his reign was introduced as His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular was, even toward the end of his life during his exile in Saudi Arabia, attempting to ship something (it’s not clear what, but one can guess) to his son Taban Amin, leading guerrilla attacks in the Congolese jungle against the army of the democratic Uganda.
That the world’s democracies can become the unified force for the promotion of liberty that Palmer envisions, a force that doesn’t routinely fall for the sort of games of one-step-forward-two-steps-back reform that have served tyrants so well in Tehran, Pyongyang, and elsewhere, seems an unfortunately long shot. And even if many of the “last 45” are forced to step down, Orizio’s reporting suggests that many are likely to remain a malign influence in their countries.
Certainly, the fostering of democracy worldwide should be a national security priority. But given the circumstances of our world, Palmer’s vision of a free world by 2025 seems sadly remote. Perhaps by 2050?
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