Stephen M. Walt

WSJ: ‘Our despots are nice despots’

The Wall Street Journal is a fine newspaper, but its op-ed page is like listening to O’Reilly, Beck, or Limbaugh but with a better vocabulary. And it usually makes about as much sense as they do. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal editors told us that pro-American dictators are ethically superior to anti-American tyrants and potentates. ...

The Wall Street Journal is a fine newspaper, but its op-ed page is like listening to O’Reilly, Beck, or Limbaugh but with a better vocabulary. And it usually makes about as much sense as they do.

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal editors told us that pro-American dictators are ethically superior to anti-American tyrants and potentates. Money quote (h/t Eli Clifton &Jim Lobe):

The regime in Tehran — aptly described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday as ‘a military dictatorship with a kind of theocratic overlay’ — feels zero compunction or shame about repressing political opponents. Hosni Mubarak and Egypt’s military, dependent on U.S. aid and support, were susceptible to outside pressure to shun violence. Tehran scorns the West.

To put it another way, pro-American dictatorships have more moral scruples. The comparison is akin to what happened in the 1980s when U.S. allies led by authoritarians fell peacefully in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, even as Communist regimes proved tougher."

I’m no fan of the Islamic Republic, but two points are relevant here.  First, plenty of pro-American dictators–including former President Mubarak–felt zero compunction about brutally repressing political opponents in the past. That’s one big reason why his regime was so unpopular. He just didn’t do it this time around, in part because his security police weren’t up to the task and because Egypt’s armed services apparently refused to kill large numbers of their countrymen to keep him in power. 

Second, and more importantly, has the WSJ editorial team completely forgotten about the fall of communism? Remember those nasty, hostile, brutal, anti-American, and vicious communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the USSR itself?  These regimes didn’t prove to be "tough" at all. In fact, by declining to suppress the "velvet revolutions" by force, they seem to have exhibited the same "moral scruples" that the WSJ attributes to its list of "pro-American" despots.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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