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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?

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A walnut tree stripped of its branches stands in the rubble of the Kalat al-Numan citadel, originally built during the Roman era some 2,000 years ago, after allegedly being bombed several times by the Syrian air force on Nov. 18, 2012, in Maaret Al-Numan. (John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

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Poupic says:

This would have been a great article when “The Arab Spring” started. I knew then no real democracy would happen in any part of the Arab world. This is a world where succession if not from father to son is always bloody. That is the way it is and always will be up to a long time in the future. The strong man rule with the help of the mosque. They do not trust each other but need the other’s agreement to continue ruling the masses. I knew that all along. The professor writes after the fact here. It would be interesting to read what he wrote when the so called “Arab Spring” started.

ott198089 says:

Although a lot of people succumbed to the wishful thinking and the pious nonsense spouted by the mainstream media, there were plenty of rational people (like Dr. Daniel Pipes) who understood what the “Arab Spring” was all about from the beginning.

The Western-style Democracy isn’t just about regular and clean elections, it’s first of all about the rule of law, respect for minorities, religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and respect for individual rights.

It so happened that all of these lofty ideas are an oxymoron in the Muslim culture in general and the Arab one in particular, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that empowering masses in the Muslim world means only one thing – mob rule.

That’s why only 50-60 years ago, before the Muslim masses were able to make their voices heard, there was much more religious, ethnic, and political diversity in the Muslim world. I remember the group pictures of the students in the Cairo University – none of the females in the 1950s wore headscarves and practically all of them had miniskirts, but the one taken recently had most of them wearing hijabs, and none of them had miniskirts.

I also remember that the Shah’s Iran had political parties ranging from the secular nationalist right to the extreme left. The Trotskyites competed with pro-Moscow Communists, and they all fought against the ultranationalists. Khomeini and his followers took care of all of them.

Poupic says:

OK, you and I know the evidence. So why are so few of us and so many wishful thinkers screwing up the minds of people with their wishful thinking? One country was almost there, Tunisia. Today Tunisia is well on it’s way to be Sharia ruled as are Egypt and Libya. McCain with all his good intentions thinks he can help the insurgents while differentiating between the good guys and the Islamists. It is tragic that people who zero knowledge of the Middle east‘s history, culture, religions are the one’s who direct what has to be done. Barack Hussein just nominated a lover of PA terror who despises Israel to be the US UN Ambassador. Until the next President seat in the White House Barack Hussein is going to create more evil while claiming to advance Democracy and goodwill.

mbermangorvine says:

The author lost me with his assertion that the Assad regime has basically evolved into a nonideological, traditionalist dictatorship. The Syrian regime’s alliance with Iran and funneling of high-grade weapons from the regime in Tehran to Hezbollah makes it a dangerously destabilizing force internationally as well as a horrifyingly murderous gang of thugs at home. On the other hand, Newell is probably right that we can’t expect the Syrian “rebels” to produce anything better in terms of human rights or international peace.

ott198089 says:

I suspect that the main reason for it is that the generation of the 60′s is now in charge of the governments, media, judiciary, and academia in the West.

The people who grew up hating Western Judeo-Christian civilization, everything it stands for, and obsessed over the real and imaginary Western sins are incapable of standing up to the Islamic barbarians the way previous generations of Western leaders were able to.

I’m afraid that in the end, the fascists will come to power, and it’ll be the end of the glorious Western civilization.

Poupic says:

Glorious western civilization? Most do not know their own history, geography. They do not know the names of the politicians representing them yet they all have an opinion about everything in the Middle east, Islam, Arabs, Israel… After all everybody has the right to have an opinion! So they think the Arabs and Islam are just like they are and only a few and far between are terrorists. Oy! We are done for because this applies to Kerry now running all over the place saying there is no time. At the same time Barack Hussein named as Ambassador to the UN a rabid anti- Semite that describes the PLO as suffering from the big bad Israel. Oy! Both of those Yahoo know nothing are in charge!

PhillipNagle says:

This is purely a religious war with the rebels trying to achieve Sunni hegemeny in the area, supported by Sunni Islamist regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey and the Sunni international terrorist arm al-Qaeda. The Syrian regime is supported by the Shi’ite regimes in Iran and Iraq, the Shi’ite militia from Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Russsia. Regardless of who wins, it will end with a bloodbath with a tyranical regime in charge. The only logical course for the US is stay out.

mishamb says:

This is an interesting article, and the writer’s point that run-of-the-mill dictators are less dangerous than ideological fanatics is valid. But I’m not sure that is what we are looking at in Syria under Bashar Al-Assad. Certainly his father was excellent at using more powerful nations to bolster Syria’s standing and influence while maintaining Syria’s independence. But Bashar is not his father and he hasn’t been nearly as good as his father at playing groups and countries off one another.

Bashar’s main goal certainly is to keep his family in power and to protect the Alawites and their allied minorities in Syria. But he has had to depend more on Iran than his father ever would have. For instance it was reported three or four years back the Hezbollah had set up a scud base in Syria. If this was true, it meant Iran and not Assad, would decide if and when Syria went to war since Hezbollah is a wholly-owned Iranian subsidiary. Assad the Elder would never have allowed another country that kind of power.

So under Bashar, the Iranian extremist and the Hezbollah extremist have a level of power and influence they hadn’t under his father. This, in a way, makes Basher not an ideological extremist exactly but also not a run-of the-mill dictator either. And even if you don’t think this Iran-Hezbollah axis had undue influence before the Syrian civil war, it certainly does now. Bashar is totally beholden to them for his survival at this point. He owes them and has much less autonomy to act. He may act for reasons he sees as utilitarian not ideological, but he now serves ideological masters.

I don’t mean this as a way to show the United States should follow this or that policy in Syria, but to show that the situation is much more complex than this article makes it.

Habbgun says:

Very easy for the “realists” to say we were right. Problem is the line between terrorist and supposedly non-terrorist state is pretty shadowy. You can argue the difference between Mubarak and Iran but it was the Saudis our “allies” who were funding Al-Qaeda and most of these states have supported them and have provided the fighters. Lurking below these states are the Islamicists….lurking over everyone in these states are lousy economies dependent on oil if they are lucky to have it or utterly hopeless without it. These governments are inherently unstable and have to mollify their populaces. They do it with anti-western terror. Bush admin’s point was the price of keeping the status quo was too high. How many 9/11′s can we absorb. Do we wait for chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.

You can ignore, fight an all out war or try to modernize and democratize which did work with Japan and Germany although those states needed to rebuild and not modernize. Bush chose the most humane option. It failed.

If you think brutal, canny and lying dictators playing Islamicists and the West against each other is a great policy. Go ahead and believe it.

We failed with a humane policy. No shame in that. Want to be truly tough and real? Try bombing M&M into the ground and force Islam to deal with the fact that A may not exist given that A could not prevent the bombing. Any modern country could do that. Care to try it? Or do you think finding some sort of stability is the answer?

I would love for someone from the “realist” position explain to me how propping up these regimes will prevent another 9/11 or everyday Islamic terror. It won’t. So what is the point? If it is to say we have to live every day with terror because that is realistic go ahead and say it but I bet you won’t be as popular as you are when you fudge that point.

herbcaen says:

Both radical Shia and Sunni Islam pose threats to the US and cannot compromise with Western society. Thus, which is more dangerous? While radical Sunnis brought us 9/11, they were ultimately successful because our FBI was (and still is asleep). I fear radical Shia Islam more. Why, because it is based in Iran, a country with a history of intelligent and disciplined people who can creatively work towards a bad goal. Kind of like comparing Germany to Poland. Both hated Jews, Poland probably more so, but German discipline allowed the Holocaust to take place. Thus, bring down Iran first and let the Sunnis self destruct

Velocodger says:

Another lesson of history might be found in early America. The modern view is that settlers came to America seeking freedom. While this may be true in the strictest sense, the fact is many settlers came as members of religious sects seeking the “freedom” to oppress their fellow sect members. Laws punishing foul language, fornication, ect. were more easily imposed in America than in England, where there were limits on the sect’s authority. I see parallels to the motivation of many Mideast rebels, who seek the “freedom” to impose their religious sects’ tenets on their fellow citizens.

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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?

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