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?
Here is where we face our dismal choice. Mubarak was a canny old Mafioso survivor who enriched himself and his ruling circle through American aid, but also kept Muslim fundamentalism in check, even defending (albeit cursorily) the Copts. Assad and his father were neither our nor Israel’s friends, but their foreign policy was based on Realpolitik—the need to unify the populace and assert leadership of the Arab world by being Israel’s chief foe—rather than the utopian vision of the fundamentalists. In recent years, given the Soviet Union’s collapse as a super-power, their threat to Israel amounted mainly to sabre-rattling. Those who in any way challenged the Assad clique’s monopoly on power faced savage reprisals. But those who knuckled under could live relatively ordinary lives. We know all too well, by contrast, that the new wave of jihadist tyrannies that was born with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is even more hostile to the West, because its leaders’ hatred of modernity cannot be compromised by an appeal to Realpolitik or the prospect of economic prosperity; at home, like previous totalitarian revolutions, it seeks not just obedience but the transformation of human nature.
Our lack of the ability or willingness to make a distinction between authoritarian tyrannies like Baathist Syria and totalitarian tyrannies like Iran has had a profound impact on recent American foreign policy. Vladimir Putin, for example, is a “rational actor” in the sense that, like a 19th-century militarist, he will use every means at his disposal to advance his and Russia’s power; what he lacks is a millenarian vision that would induce him to destroy us and himself if need be in its pursuit. By contrast, the Iranian leadership’s vision of realizing a worldwide Islamic utopia through nuclear apocalypse is the authentic mode of the revolutionary going back to Robespierre, Lenin, and Hitler, willing to stake all on global victory or self-immolation. In deciding whom to side with in the Syrian civil war and other such conflicts (for there are more to come, aimed at corrupt Arab regimes or even at Muslim regimes deemed insufficiently radical by even more extreme Salafists), we have to ask ourselves: Who is it more or less in our self-interest to back, if anyone?
Lest this sound pragmatic to the point of overlooking moral considerations, remember that, as between totalitarian tyrannies like Iran and “garden variety” tyrants (with a dash of modernization ideology) like the Baathist dictators, there is a greater likelihood that the latter can evolve into something better or at least less vicious, while their oppression of their own subjects is limited to enforcing obedience to their monopoly on political power at home. Jean Kirkpatrick’s great lesson—do not throw over an authoritarian ally if it increases the likelihood of a totalitarian successor—was one that Plato, Aristotle, and Lincoln would have immediately understood. Sadly, that lesson has been forgotten by those who cheered the Arab Spring and would now have America run pell-mell into the Syrian civil war without solid evidence that the fall of the house of Assad will bring something better.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Will the call to list the Lebanese group’s military wing as a terrorist organization in the European Union have any effect?