Thursday, June 30, 2005

Domestic Repression and Foreign Threats 

Many years ago, when the Cold War was in its final "throes" (to quote VP Cheney in a different context), I was fortunate enough to attend a brilliant course at Amherst College taught by the eminent political scientest and noted expert on the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev, Professor William Taubman. His central observation on the Soviet Union's internal political "legitimacy", such as it was, was that it was sustainable only through a combination of ruthless internal repression in combination with the vilification and demonization of perceived external threats to autonomy and survival. The latter justified the former. In the case of the Soviets, the US in the post WWII period was that threat.

His point was simple and clear - tyrants manufacture threats to take and keep power. That's why they're constantly at war. Since the people don't get a vote, and nobody claims legitimacy derived from God any longer (though that worked for many centuries) their only legitimacy relates to securing the country against threats. His view was that Gorbachev's rise to power, and his desire to improve relations with the west ("glasnost"), would ultimately bring about the weakening of internal Soviet repression. His prediction was more conservative than what happened.

This same point applies to virtually every tyranny -- North Korea has Japan, South Korea and the US; China has Taiwan, India or the US; Cuba has the US; Iran has the US; Iraq had Iran, Kuwait, and the US; Argentina (under the military junta) had the British. Tyrants need enemies and make war to justify the appalling abuse of their people. Over time, it seems that the people of these countries (the disenfranchised electorate, as it were), tend to admire the US - if we support their aspirations for freedom and prosperity. It's their leaders who call us the great satan to justify internal repression, outright theft and impoverishment).

A more complicated question relates to our unappealing tyrannical "friends" and "allies" in the Middle East, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Our willingness to accept the local political and economic abuse of their people is very bad for perceptions of America. They dislike us for good reason - we are aligned with their oppressors.

Thankfully, it seems we may be starting to get it right. Tyrants will always and should hate and fear us. If we consistently support the aspirations of their people to be free, it may lead to some short term instability but lead to a much happier long term result.

The near term test cases are clearly North Korea and Iran. With its new President, and his history of anti-Americanism (he was a top leader of the group which seized the American Embassy and held our people hostage for 450 days), Iran may be moving into a period of significant internal repression combined with vilification of the west. We know already that North Korea is there. How these ugly regimes, and their relationships with us evolve is unpredictable and potentially very violent.

We can predict, with some confidence, that we won't get anywhere negotiating with their current leaders. Concessions will feed perceived weakness, while saber rattling will inspire more rhetorical bluster and internal repression. They may strike out at their neighbors and start something - or perhaps simply burn out. Iran over the next 12 months will be especially unpredictable.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jul 01, 08:26:00 PM:

To add to your list, Pakistan (which has never been truly democratic) has India. Its military rulers have a vested interest in continuing hostilities with India in order to justify the pre-eminent position they enjoy in their country's politics.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 02, 11:08:00 AM:

"tyrants manufacture threats to take and keep power"

Whether you agree with them or not (it doesn't make a whit of difference), people around the planet discuss America in these terms. My visiting British relatives did just last night over dinner. Simply replace 'tyrant' with 'warmonger.' To people who hold such views, a post such as yours comes across as, in a word, ironic.

Given the corporate media of the USA, you most likely haven't seen the January 2005, BBC TV documentary, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, broadcast recently in Canada on the CBC. You can probably find it online if you dig around.

The documentary charts the rise of the Islamists with the rise of the Straussians. If you consider peddling Straussian 'noble lies' to your citizens as qualifying Bush as 'corrupt,' then, there, CardinalPark, I submit this documentary as a coherent, anti-Bush argument from the Left.

A more probing anti-Straussian essay, Ignoble Liars - Leo Strauss, George Bush, and the Philosophy of Mass Deception by Earl Shorris, appears in the June 2004 Harper's Magazine. But I'm not sure where you could find it, outside of your local library.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 02, 12:26:00 PM:

You can download The Power of Nightmares at archive.org.  

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