Dictatorships, Double Standards and Ted Cruz

The senator learned the wrong lesson from the Reagan years.

Talking tough.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Remember when Republicans opposed dictators? It was 2005. Netflix only mailed DVDs, everyone seemed to have a blog and George W. Bush was president. Saddam Hussein was in the dock in Baghdad. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was under pressure from the State Department to allow members of the Muslim Brotherhood to run for parliament. Even Saudi Arabia was being pushed to let people vote in local elections.

In his second inaugural address that January, Bush said his foreign policy would support democratic movements all over the world "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Well, those days are gone. Today most Republicans (with the exception of Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain) don't want to squeeze dictators such as Egypt's General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. But this sentiment has largely been kept in the background. After all, what politician wants to say alliances with the jailers of journalists should be a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy?

It turns out that Senator Ted Cruz does. Speaking before the Heritage Foundation on Thursday, Cruz argued that Bush's freedom agenda is a chimera, that there are times when America's values and interests are not one and the same.

"Would it be nice if the progress of liberal democracy was an inevitable, linear evolution in human affairs?" Cruz asked. "Indeed, it would. But even a cursory glance at the history of democracy in the some two and a half millennia since the experiment was first attempted in ancient Athens reveals this is far from the case, and the reality is that in order to preserve and strengthen the United States, we cannot treat democracy promotion as an absolute directive; but rather as a highly desirable ideal -- one that can be reached most effectively through the promotion of the security and interests of the United States."

Cruz here was clearly drawing from a seminal 1979 essay by Jeane Kirkpatrick, called "Dictatorships and Double Standards." In it, she eviscerated President Jimmy Carter for trying to fashion a human rights agenda that was incapable of distinguishing between anti-communist authoritarians and communist totalitarians. Kirkpatrick, who went on to become the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations under President Ronald Reagan, argued that Carter should have stood by America's allied dictators like the shah of Iran, instead of doing nothing in the face of the country's Islamic revolution.

Today, Kirkpatrick's policy would apply to the Gulf monarchies and Egypt, where Cruz argues that undemocratic leaders are preferable to the prospect of jihadists who would unseat them in revolution.

Kirkpatrick is for Cruz a lodestar. His national security adviser, Victoria Coates, requires each new class of interns to read the essay on their first day working for the senator. And today one can see the appeal of Kirkpatrick's approach. After nearly 15 years of war since 9/11, one thing is clear: Jihadists will fill the ungoverned spaces of the Islamic world. As brutal as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi were, the chaos that followed their fall was worse. Today large swaths of Libya and Iraq are safe havens for the Islamic State.

"The intervention in Libya was, in a word, a disaster," Cruz said Thursday. "And the argument that Republicans had -- to in principle support what might have been a democratic uprising against Qaddafi but that the Obama administration botched the job -- is revisionist history."

But Cruz is engaging in some revisionism himself. By the time President Barack Obama authorized air strikes against Qaddafi in 2011, the Libyan dictator had effectively declared war on his population. Libya was already a chaotic and ungoverned space. The lesson was not that America should not have intervened, but rather that after the intervention, more should have been done to restore order.

A similar lesson applies to Iraq, where today the Islamic State controls Mosul and Ramadi. It's true that that the chaos that followed Saddam's fall created an opening for al-Qaeda, and it established an Iraq affiliate. That affiliate was largely beaten by 2010. It then regrouped and rebuilt itself as America was leaving Iraq. It's no accident Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waited for U.S. troops to leave to escalate his campaign against the Sunni minority, which led many Sunni tribes to reconsider their battle against the Islamic State.

The weaknesses of Cruz's worldview become most apparent when he explains his approach to Syria. He said the U.S. has no side in the Syrian civil war and that leaving Bashar al-Assad in power is better than letting the Islamic State take over. But Cruz doesn't acknowledge how Assad and his allies deliberately target the more moderate Syrian rebels, and for years left the Islamic State alone to consolidate its position. Assad historically has had no objection to jihadists. He allowed al-Qaeda to send foreign fighters through Syria to Iraq in the 2000s. His brutality has rallied thousands of young men and women from all over the world to join the fight against him.

None of this is to say that Republicans should return to the days of regime change. A lesson of the Bush years is that there are limits to American power, particularly in the Middle East and particularly when it comes to nation-building.

But there is also a danger in confusing dictatorships with stability. This is a lesson that Reagan himself understood. He strayed from the Kirkpatrick doctrine when he forced Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos to step down from power after losing a contested election in 1986, and when his government publicly denounced the murder of a Chilean opposition leader. Today the Philippines and Chile are more stable because Reagan had the foresight to prod its dictators to allow for a transition to democracy.

This option may not be on offer today in places like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. And Cruz is of course correct that there are times when the alternatives to a pro-American dictator are much worse for the national interest. But Cruz does not appreciate that dictators sow the seeds of their own demise. Mubarak's regime didn't fall because Obama ordered him to step down. It fell because even Mubarak's army would not shed the blood necessary to keep him in power. Sometimes a dictator falls because his people no longer want him to lead them, and there is nothing a superpower can do about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Eli Lake at

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