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The False Allure of 'Stability'

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
December 9, 2002
Weekly Standard


OF THE MANY silly reasons propounded for leaving Saddam Hussein on his blood-stained throne, the silliest has to be the suggestion that to remove him would promote "instability." As a guiding philosophy for policy-making, the mantra of "instability bad, stability good"— endlessly repeated by foreign policy mandarins— is about as useful as "Great taste, less filling."

Stability is not inherently good or bad. It depends on what kind you're talking about, and what the alternatives are. Stalinist Russia was very stable; one ruler stayed in power for almost 30 years, and anyone who threatened public order was shot or shipped off to the gulag. By contrast, postwar Italy has not been terribly stable; governments seem to change as often as hemlines. But where would you rather live— in Russia in the 1930s or Italy since World War II?

On the stability spectrum, the Middle East is closer to the old Soviet Union than to Italy. Which may seem odd since, in the popular mind, the Middle East is wracked by instability. Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generates horrific images of violence for our TV screens on a daily basis. Yet look behind the headlines. The only country in the entire region that sees regular changes of government is Israel, which is now in the midst of yet another election campaign. On the surface, Israel looks pretty unstable. Israel's enemies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on the other hand, are models of stability: They have been led by one man, Yasser Arafat, for more than 30 years.

The same pattern holds throughout the Arab world. There was a brief period of instability in the Middle East— of coups and revolutions— following the end of colonial rule after World War II. But since the 1960s the political scene has been all but set in amber. The longevity of Arab rulers, whether styled as presidents, emirs, kings, or prime ministers, recalls that of the Sun King. Muammar Qaddafi has ruled without interruption for 33 years; Saddam Hussein, 23 years; Hosni Mubarak, 21 years; King Fahd, 20 years; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 13 years; Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, 24 years; Zine el-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia, 15 years.

Only the Grim Reaper is able to change rulers with any regularity. When a potentate does pop off, his successor is likely to be his son— a pattern that holds in both monarchies like Jordan (where Abdullah II succeeded Hussein) and thugocracies like Syria (where Bashir Assad succeeded dear old Hafez). Saddam is grooming his two bad-boy sons, Uday and Qusay, to take over the family business. Hosni Mubarak is doing the same with his kid, Gamal. Liberalization is occurring in a few spots like Qatar, Bahrain, and Morocco, but it is a slow and gradual process that has yet to threaten the monarchs' hold on power.

The Arab world has seen no shortage of stability and it has resulted in stagnation and worse. The United Nations recently issued an Arab Human Development Report compiled by a group of Arab scholars. It painted a depressing picture of a region marked by poverty, illiteracy, poor public health, lack of a free press, and little access to the Internet. All this want comes amid plenty— plenty of oil, that is. But ample natural resources have not prevented the Arab world from sinking in many categories to the level of sub-Saharan Africa. One of the few indices where the region scores high is— you guessed it— "political stability."

What accounts for this backwardness? The U.N. report's authors make a halfhearted attempt to blame the Jews: "Israel's illegal occupation of Arab lands is one of the most pervasive obstacles to security and progression in the region," they write. But even if Israeli occupation were worse for the West Bank and Gaza Strip than PLO occupation (and the record indicates otherwise), Israel is only a small sliver of the Middle East. The rest of the region is not run by evil Christians or Jews. It is run by evil Muslims, or, at best, corrupt and inefficient Muslims. The people of the Middle East know the problem intimately; they live with bad governments every day. Naturally they feel great anger towards their rulers, but they have no way to achieve peaceful regime change.

In their frustration, many Arabs cast blame on the United States, which, rightly or wrongly, is seen as the guarantor of corrupt governments in Cairo, Riyadh, and beyond. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Eygptian leader of al Qaeda, writes: "The Jewish-crusader alliance, led by the United States, will not allow any Muslim force to reach power in the Islamic countries. It will mobilize all its power to hit it and remove it from power." Therefore, Islamic radicals reason, they must first bring down the United States before they can bring down their own governments.

They are probably mistaken. Mubarak and the Saudi royals are perfectly capable of oppressing their own people without any help from the United States. But al-Zawahiri does have a point: The United States backs Mubarak and the Saudis because Washington thinks the devil we know is better than the one who may take power afterward.

This cynical calculation has bought us security cooperation from a number of Middle Eastern regimes, such as Jordan and Egypt, which are able to torture and execute terrorists in ways that we dare not (yet). This security arrangement is not to be gainsaid, even if the regimes aren't especially scrupulous in separating genuine terrorists from mere dissidents. Unfortunately, in the case of our friends in Saudi Arabia, U.S. support buys rather less. The Council on Foreign Relations recently took the Saudis to task in a report for failing to cooperate adequately in shutting off terrorist financing. Perhaps the Saudis are too busy spewing anti-American propaganda so vitriolic it would make Goebbels blush.

Whatever the short-term security gains from cooperating with illiberal Middle Eastern regimes, America pays a heavy long-term price by incurring the enmity of their peoples. This hatred has already cost us well over 3,000 American lives, which seems a lot to pay for stability.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY, of course, whether instability would be better than the status quo, but in the case of Iraq, at least, the dangers suggested by the worry-warts seem grossly exaggerated. The case for concern was well summarized in a letter that Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent to President Bush on September 13:

War against Iraq could have unpredictable consequences not only for Iraq but for peace and stability elsewhere in the Middle East. Would preventive or preemptive force succeed in thwarting serious threats, or, instead, provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent? How would another war in Iraq impact the civilian population, in the short- and long-term? How many more innocent people would suffer and die, or be left without homes, without basic necessities, without work? Would the United States and the international community commit to the arduous long-term task of ensuring a just peace or would a post-Saddam Iraq continue to be plagued by civil conflict and repression, and continue to serve as a destabilizing force in the region? Would the use of military force lead to wider conflict and instability?

Such worries might be appropriate if we were about to invade and kick out the rulers of Egypt or Saudi Arabia. In those cases it is possible that any future tyrants— if they are in the Osama bin Laden mold— would be more threatening to America than the existing ones. But it seems farcical to raise these questions about Iraq, a state ruled by a megalomaniac who stockpiles weapons of mass destruction, invades his neighbors, and uses poison gas on his own people. It's hard to imagine how the alternative could possibly be worse.

War against Iraq would provoke more terrorist threats and attacks? Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are already trying as hard as possible to kill as many Americans as they can. Saddam is paying a $25,000 bounty to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Some suggest that strong American action against Saddam will bring to power terrorist-sponsoring Islamists in Pakistan, Jordan, the Gulf states, Egypt, Saudi . . . oops, the Islamists are already in power there. In any case this fear was also raised before the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan, and in neither case has it come true. Islamists are emboldened by U.S. weakness (e.g., the pullout from Beirut in 1984 and from Somalia in 1993), not by U.S. strength.

More innocent people dying? Saddam has already killed countless hundreds of thousands. Human Rights Watch says that he is guilty of genocide. His record is the worst in the region, which is saying something.

More people denied basic necessities or left without homes? Iraqis are already suffering because of sanctions designed to contain their dictator. Baathist rule has led an estimated 3 million Iraqis— out of a current population of 23 million— to flee their country. Roughly a million people are internally displaced refugees. The example of Afghanistan suggests that many would be likely to return to their homes if a more civil ruler took power in Baghdad.

More civil conflict and repression? Saddam has spent decades using extreme repression to put down Shiite and Kurdish rebellions. More likely, Iraq's various ethnic groups would be reconciled to a less heavy-handed central government that ruled on a federalist model. And if they still wanted to break apart, the presence of international peacekeepers could ensure a peaceful divorce— along the lines of Czechoslovakia, not Yugoslavia. The odds of Iran taking advantage of the situation to annex the Arab Shiites next door are no greater than the prospect of Albania annexing neighboring ethnic Albanians, an unfounded fear often raised before the U.S. intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

Finally, would war lead to wider conflict? Before being penned in by a U.S.-led alliance, Saddam had attacked Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel— all in the first dozen years of his dictatorship. He has committed more aggression against more neighbors than probably any other reigning ruler in the world. If his track record is anything to go by, leaving him in power— not removing him— would be more likely to lead to wider conflict.

There is one fear not raised by Bishop Gregory that is often cited by critics who like to think of themselves as more hardheaded: that instability will lead to the loss of oil supplies. It's possible Saddam might torch some oil wells on his way out, but Iraqi production would quickly rise with the lifting of sanctions. Even if a U.S. invasion were to set off a chain reaction that somehow led to the rise of more Islamist regimes (and it's not at all clear how this would happen), those governments would still need to sell oil to survive. Embargoes have been tried before, but ultimately could not be sustained. It is striking that, even today, America's leading enemies in the region— Iran, Iraq, and Libya— are all eager to sell us oil. The only thing stopping them is American sanctions, which these regimes want to get lifted.

So much for the doomsday scenarios. It is easier to imagine positive consequences to removing Saddam Hussein. The most positive of all is that deposing the Butcher of Baghdad might send dominos toppling, leading to more freedom in the most oppressed region in the world. This seems especially likely next door, in Iran, which has lately been rocked by anti-mullah student demonstrations.

THIS PROSPECT SHOULD FILL U.S. policymakers with joy. Instead it is greeted with trepidation among many of the same people who also feared the consequences of the Soviet Union breaking up. Recall President Bush's infamous "Chicken Kiev" speech in 1991 urging Ukraine not to secede— just before it did. The elder Bush was also anxious not to give any encouragement to the Chinese student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square who quoted Jefferson and built a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Worst of all, he refused to go to Baghdad in 1991, largely for fear of the instability that would result. Instead the U.S. stood by while Saddam slaughtered Kurds and Shiites who rose up in rebellion. It would be interesting to know what the Iraqi people think of "stability"; probably pretty much what the peoples of Communist Russia and Communist Eastern Europe thought of it, which wasn't much.

There are legitimate reasons to fear instability, especially if it threatens key American allies such as Pakistan. Certainly extreme instability, of the kind that gripped Lebanon during its civil war, is a bad thing— indeed, worse than the grim Syrian repression that now pervades what was once the freest country in the Middle East. But an unwavering attachment to stability does not serve U.S. interests well if it means keeping in place hostile regimes, whether in Moscow, Beijing, Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, or Tripoli.

This "stability above all" policy is not just perverse. It's downright anti-American. The United States of America, after all, is a country that was founded amidst great turmoil. Luckily, one of the superpowers of the day— France— was willing to help American rebels instead of supporting British repression in the name of stability. It is a favor that we should be more anxious to perform for other peoples yearning to be free.

Max Boot, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

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