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Jewish World Review June 16, 2000 /13 Sivan, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Falling for Dictators

The persistent weakness of the West for appeasing Arab despots -- THE 1930S were widely considered the decade of the dictator. Democracy was on the run as Adolf Hitler and his Nazis rose to power in Germany. A cast of despots, including Benito Mussolini in Italy and Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, made the democracies stand out as the exceptions.

Appeasing these dictators was seen by many as the only sane method of preventing war. Generations later, we are supposedly living in a more enlightened age, where democracy is gradually edging the last surviving dictatorships off the map.

Freedom House, the democracy advocacy organization, estimates in a recent report that more than 62 percent of the world’s population now live in democracies. That’s up from just over 14 percent, the figure Freedom House estimates for 1950.

Good news notwithstanding, it still leaves me asking the same question that a lot of people were pondering in the 1930s. Namely, why are so many otherwise smart people in the Western democracies such suckers for dictators? Why is there never any shortage of “experts” to tell us that these “strong” leaders are supported by their nations, which don’t really want democracy?

These thoughts are brought to mind, of course, by the death of Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, whose one-man, one-religious-faction rule came to an end last Saturday. Assad’s repulsive nature never prevented Western governments from treating the Syrian as if he were a legitimate ruler.

It is especially interesting to note how willing the Western democracies have always been to accept the idea that Middle Eastern countries like Syria can aspire to nothing better than to be led by a murderer like Assad. Indeed, while the United States and Europe are commendably steadfast in refusing to recognize the legitimacy of a European dictator like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, when it comes to Arab countries, the West has a double standard.

Toadying to the dictators
Assad isn’t the only example. Look at the way America treats Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat. All it took was a signature on the Oslo accords for that bloodthirsty terrorist to be transformed into a statesman, a status belied by his continuing contempt for both the rights of his people and the sanctity of the agreements he signs.

As for Assad, as memorable as many of his crimes have been — such as the slaughter of 20,000 Syrians in the city of Hama in 1982 — perhaps the most memorable aspect of the Syrian’s life was the free pass his iniquitous career received from Western governments. Despite repressing his own people, occupying Lebanon, supporting terrorism and being the primary obstacle to peace in his region, the Syrian was still being accorded the “respect” — President Clinton’s word — due a world leader as his life ended.

This is an attitude echoed by even the normally sensible Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) who took the trouble to attend Assad's funeral and referred to him as a "great and historic" figure. But then again, I guess hobnobbing with evil dictators is one of the accepted perks of being a member of the U.S. Senate. Specter even found time to praise Dr. Bashar Assad, the dictator's son who has succeeded him.

Assad’s aptitude for bamboozling American presidents and secretaries of state was nothing short of astonishing. In the late 1970s, then-President Jimmy Carter met him in Geneva and proclaimed him a “moderate.” In the 1990s, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher journeyed to the Syrian capital month after month in vain efforts to convince Assad to go along with peace plans. One can only imagine how much Assad enjoyed making the stuffy Christopher eat dirt with each rejection.

Humiliating Clinton
That humiliation was topped earlier this year when Assad refused, during a meeting in Geneva, to accept President Clinton’s personal entreaties to accept the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for an Israel-Syria peace treaty. That Clinton risked this rebuke merely illustrates both Assad’s chutzpah and Washington’s inability to understand the nature of the Syrian regime.

Israeli governments were also victimized by the tendency to treat Assad as a normal leader. Prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak all wasted valuable political capital on vain efforts to persuade the Israeli public to accept the surrender of the Golan Heights, even though Assad had no intention of making peace.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently raised the idea that true peace between Israel and its neighbors would have to wait until the Arab world embraced democracy. His comments were widely dismissed as a cover for an unwillingness to make peace, but his historical analysis was flawless.

Democracies generally don’t make war or foment terrorism against other democracies. Dictatorships such as Syria have no such scruples.

Yet Netanyahu didn’t learn the lesson, since during his last months in office he attempted to do a Golan giveaway of his own with Assad.

In the end, we are forced to ask whether change is truly possible in the Arab world. Can Syria eventually become democratic?

Economic determinists like The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman think that the desire for computer technology and Lexus automobiles will eventually make even the Assads of the world open up their countries to peace, commerce and democracy. But that only makes sense if we believe that the culture and history of Islamic countries can be wished away by punching a keyboard button.

Nevertheless, there is a condescension in the thinking of both the optimists, like Friedman, as well as his critics. If we think Arab nationalism and anti-Zionism can be permanently bought off with American aid payments or international trade, we are both kidding ourselves and underestimating the Syrians. But at the same time, surely we don’t believe that Syrians haven’t the same right to democracy as we do.

In the meantime, as in the 1930s, the temptation to appease the dictators will remain. Given the desire of democratic populations — like the people of Israel — for peace, that temptation will continue to be hard to resist.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin