Another Perspective

Catch-22 Dictatorships

Does the Bush Doctrine give Muslim dictators an incentive to overstate the Islamist threat?

By 8.1.06

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Is Pakistan's Islamist threat largely invented? Yes, says a recent Carnegie Endowment policy brief. It argues that to secure its rule, Pakistan's military establishment invents the Islamist threat. But that's really no surprise. An invented Islamist threat ensures that a dictator is given American support. The absence of a threat, meantime, turns the dictatorship into a potential American target in the war on terror. The real surprise is in the logical conclusion that the Carnegie paper fails to reach: That Bush Doctrine-style regime change -- or, at a minimum, the real threat of regime change -- is the only way to remove a dictator.

According to the Carnegie paper by Frederic Grare, "Pakistan: The Myth of an Islamist Peril," the "fear of an Islamic threat has been the driving force behind most Western countries' foreign policies toward Pakistan in recent years. The possibility that violent Islamists will kill President Pervez Musharraf, throw Pakistan into turmoil, take over the country and its nuclear weapons, and escalate regional terrorism has dominated the psychological and political landscape. Such fears have usually led to support of the Pakistani military as the only institution able to contain the danger."

But, "the risk of an Islamist takeover in Pakistan is a myth invented by the Pakistani military to consolidate its hold on power." This was seen at the start of the Iraq war when "Musharraf told a group of businesspeople in Lahore that Pakistan would be the next target of U.S. military punishment if it continued to be perceived as a state supporting terrorism....The remarkable calm showed the sunny side of the patron-client relationship between the Pakistan state establishment and key Islamist parties and forces."

THIS ISN'T TO SAY there are no radical Islamists in Pakistan. There are. Radical Islamists in Pakistan were behind the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Radical Islamists in Pakistan support and aid the Taliban. And radical Islamists are seen on the streets of Islamabad burning American flags. Radical Islamists exist in Pakistan as they exist in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other states with large Muslim populations.

And these radical Islamists in Pakistan are a threat to the free world. As are radical Islamists anywhere -- whatever their actual strength vis-a-vis the state they live in. America learned on September 11, 2001, that seemingly unimportant radical Islamists in caves in Afghanistan could launch devastating attacks on American cities. America learned on September 11, 2001, that radical Islamists from inside supposedly allied states -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- could provide the funding and the manpower for those attacks on American cities. Islamists don't need to be in control of a state to be a danger. And as Pakistan has plenty of radical Islamists, America wants Musharraf to wipe them out.

While these radical Islamists in Pakistan are a threat to the free world, they're not, however, powerful enough to topple Musharraf's regime. Musharraf just wants the West to think the Islamists are that powerful. The Islamists' moment to topple Musharraf's regime would have been after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq -- when public opinion would have been most sympathetic. That Musharraf maintained a tight grip -- and could even order the Islamists to tone down their rhetoric -- demonstrated his complete control.

With this control, Musharraf could, if he really wanted, crack down on the Islamists and wipe them out. But Musharraf is careful to always maintain the appearance of having a big Islamist threat. There is no incentive -- rather there is a disincentive -- for him ever to fully crack down on the Islamists. And the same is true for other undemocratic rulers allied with America in the war on terror.

An Islamist "threat" -- one that the dictator provides a somewhat believable illusion of fighting -- is great for dictators. The "threat" enables a dictator to warn the free world that real democratic reforms are impossible because they'll give the Islamists greater power. The "threat" leads the free world to turn a blind eye to the dictator reversing freedoms in the name of fighting Islamists. And the "threat" leads the free world to provide the dictator with aid -- to ensure his rule against an Islamist "coup." What dictator wouldn't want an Islamist "threat"? Musharraf knows the answer.

THIS RESPONSE TO A PERCEIVED Islamist "threat" by the West is based on the premise that if the dictator falls, Islamists, rather than democrats, will take power. An apparent "threat" therefore ensures that the dictator won't be pressured to introduce reform and will be showered with aid. Take Egypt's Hosni Mubarak: He's backtracked on democracy reforms and imprisoned democracy activists. Yet he receives $1.7 billion a year in American aid. Why? Because of the supposed threat of radical Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood). Other experts at this trickery are the Saudi princes: They fund extremist mosques around the world and yet American taxpayers pay for American troops to protect them.

It's also true, however, that the astute dictator has few other options if he wants to maintain his rule while maintaining good relations with the West. He's stuck in a Catch-22 situation. Not only does an Islamist "threat" solidify the dictatorship, defeating an Islamist threat, meantime, spells trouble for the dictatorship.

Under the Bush Doctrine, if a dictator has an Islamist threat and appears to be fighting that Islamist threat, he's an ally in the war on terror. But if the dictator ever defeats the Islamists, he's simply a dictator and an enemy in the war on terror -- as dictatorships breed terrorism. Therefore, if a dictator successfully defeats the terrorists and fulfills his tasks in the war on terror he's really scored the ultimate Pyrrhic victory: He's turned himself into the target. That the Bush Doctrine ends up punishing a dictator who succeeds in destroying domestic terrorists can't have escaped dictators.

So the astute dictator has no real long-term survival options but to encourage an Islamist threat. How then can the free world introduce democracy to dictatorships? The liberal-left's policy of subtly introducing democracy through piecemeal democratic reforms is firstly rejected by dictatorships under the Islamist "threat" excuse. As the Carnegie paper states, what Musharraf effectively tells America is: "If you don't listen to me and give me what I need, the mullahs will take over. And if you push me too hard to change, I will be thrown out; and then you will be sorry."

Moreover, dictators aren't naive. They know what the free world intends reforms to lead to (shush, shush, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, democracy). So the dictators pretend to reform but really do nothing. And if you're a western power committed to a non-aggressive multilateral foreign policy, the "introduce democratic reforms or what" bottom line question from dictators is always left hanging.

This leaves regime change as the only way to really introduce democracy to a dictatorship: Either force or the very real threat of force. Dictators may calculate that rather than ending up like Saddam it's in their interest to make a deal and step down. Or at the very least undergo serious reforms that lead to democratization -- with a very real answer to the "introduce democratic reforms or what" question at the ready. Anything less than the real threat of force leaves the dictator in a comfortable Catch-22 situation, with the joke on the free world.

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About the Author

Daniel Freedman is editor of the online edition of the New York Sun.