How Plato and Aristotle Help Us Understand the Tyranny of Bashar al-Assad
Today’s upheaval in the Arab world has antecedents in past revolutions. So, why are the lessons lost on U.S. policymakers?
For the last two years, American and European leaders have confidently predicted that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria would soon be gone. Yet not only does he still control what remains of the Syrian state apparatus, he also just kicked the rebels out of the key town of al-Qusayr. Desertions from the Syrian military, initially thought to presage the regime’s collapse, have slowed markedly; in recent months, Assad’s strength has clearly increased, thanks to an influx of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and large-scale military resupply efforts from Iran and Russia.
Why is this so? To answer that question, we have to embrace the unpleasant reality that tyrannies can be quite effective in resisting democratization and crushing dissent and are frequently supported by wide swaths of the population. Unlike Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, countries with ancient pre-Islamic civilizations, Syria was cobbled together out of various cantonments and statelets left over from the Ottoman empire. The Alawites, a minority religious sect suspected of covert Christian and Druze tendencies, see no percentage in living under a Sunni-majority regime which would likely slaughter them to gain revenge for Assad’s frequent massacres of civilians. Same for the sizable Christian minority, which is the backbone of Syria’s economy.
Nor were Assad’s war tactics, as horrific as they were, hard to predict. He inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad, one of the Arab world’s most feared and repressive tyrannies. The Syrian Baathist regime had one of the worst human-rights abuse records in the world. The use of torture was widespread, along with arbitrary detention, gang-rape of prisoners (including children), and disappearances. The power of the dreaded Syrian Mukhabarat, or security service, was omnipresent.
Due to its adherence to the decrepit Baathist ideology of modernization from above, the Syrian economy remained a basket-case for decades, with a gross domestic product roughly that of West Virginia. Meddling in the internal politics of Lebanon, including assassinating anti-Syrian opposition leader Rafik Hariri, was among the regime’s few notable “achievements.” Open political debate was unknown, and the legislature was a rubber-stamp, 90 percent of whose members support Assad. When the civil unrest of the Arab Spring, having already led to the toppling of dictatorships in Egypt and Algeria, finally reached Syria, it was hardly surprising that decades of pent-up hatred for the Assads and their Alawite sect burst into a bloody and brutal civil war.
No decent person can fail to be appalled by the Assad regime’s brutality. But the simple fact is that the West lives every day with regimes, like North Korea, that leave Syria’s worst excesses in the shade. Indeed, beginning with the street demonstrations in Egypt, it seemed that American and European leaders veered overnight from uncritical support of Baathist dictators to demanding their immediate ousters, with no guarantee that they would not be followed by something no better if not much worse (as in Egypt, where violence against the Copts, threats to break the peace treaty with Israel, and the erosion of women’s rights are rampant).
Yet throughout all these awful yet entirely predictable developments, both the left and the neo-conservative right in America have persisted in believing that a new golden age of Arab liberal democracy—or something like it—was right around the corner. Whether it be Charles Krauthammer claiming that “everyone” in the Arab Spring “is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda” or President Barack Obama arguing that increased American aid will “roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate,” there is now an odd unity tying the two groups in what might be termed the Republican-Democratic National Foreign Policy Party. On its left, so to speak, are Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and neo-conservatives who see in the Arab Spring another opportunity for neo-Wilsonian interventionism, while on the right is the Obama Administration, which has agreed with many of the aims—bringing down Muammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Assad—but disagrees about the means, preferring indirect assistance in cooperation with Europe. Both sides seem eager to ignore the fact that liberal democracy with its full panoply of civil liberties and tolerance took several centuries to mature in the West.
Indeed, what passes for foreign-policy debate in official Washington reminds us that alleged ideological differences between left and right on America’s international role are often trumped by an underlying and unspoken expectation that progress is a natural and necessary evolution in human affairs. Whenever people claiming to want freedom and democracy spontaneously emerge—as in the Arab Spring—they are to be greeted with joy rather than foreboding. But in most of history and throughout most of the world, the demand for “freedom” has meant primarily the freedom to replace one arbitrary and oppressive form of government with another.
What I term “garden variety” tyrannies—men like the Assads, who exploit an entire country as if it were their private property so as to enrich themselves, their families, and cronies—have been around since the tyrants of ancient Greece. Sometimes (think Franco) their venality is dressed up as the defense of religious and national tradition. In the case of the Baath movement, the personal ambition of “the young colonels” was originally at the service of imitating the Soviet model of modernization from above, overcoming traditional religious and ethnic loyalties without succumbing to democratic self-government. The Arab Spring was the explosion of the contradiction between the original Baath secular model—which had long since degenerated into mere tyrannical greed and oppression with very little economic evolution, much less personal liberty—and the jihadist vision of a restored Islamic theocracy or even world caliphate.
The assumption that we should find “pro-democratic” groups among the rebels, as opposed to die-hard jihadists, is premised upon the belief that terrorist acts are born of despair over lack of economic opportunity and the peaceful benefits of a pluralist secular society. The tremendous influence of this idea goes back to the beginning of modernity in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. Thinkers such as Hobbes and Voltaire argued that tyrannical ambition, violence, military strife, and civil war were caused by denying human beings their basic rights to pursue their own self-interest. Once they enjoyed the fruits of security and well-being, the sources of aggression and “non-negotiable” conflict, such as religious differences, would melt way, leaving us free, as Voltaire encouraged, to cultivate our garden.
Will the call to list the Lebanese group’s military wing as a terrorist organization in the European Union have any effect?