Advancing a Free Society

A Tale of Two Autocracies

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The governments of Syria and Bahrain were both subject to condemnation in the past few days for abuses against their own populations.  Syria sanctioned by the Arab League and the UN Human Rights Council; Bahrain castigated by a panel its own government established.  Syria’s Bashir al-Assad rejected the findings, refused access to journalists and independent monitors, threatened retaliation against its critics.   Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa personally attended the announcement of his government’s failings and promised punishment of those who’d committed abuses, reforms to better protect Bahrainis in the future.

In their different reactions to criticism are keys to direct our policy.  Unfortunately, the Obama Administration seems not to see the difference.  In March, Secretary Clinton argued that American policy should be to support Bashir al-Assad, even though our government advocated other Middle East dictators step down.  She had it exactly wrong.

In the first instance, we ought to cut more slack to governments that are friendly to our interests, which Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and even Libya were by that time.  Syria is an enemy.  It funds terrorism in Palestine, in Iraq, in Lebanon.  It is a partner of North Korea in weapons of mass destruction proflieration.  It is a proxy for the terrorism of Iran.  By contrast, Bahrain is an ally, hosts our Fifth Fleet and helps manage threats we are worried about.

In the second instance, Syria had already in March proved itself less amenable to change than other Arab dictatorships.  Other governments in the region were -- and are -- tentatively finding their way toward democracy.  It is not fast enough for American taste, and may not be fast enough to forestall revolution; but there is acknowledgement that change is necessary and governments are trying to manage the pace of change.  Not so in Syria.

Bahrain has not solved its problems.  The government killed and tortured people, continues to deprive citizens of rights on the basis of religion. Promises of reform are not reform, and Bahrainis are understandably wary.  But the government of Bahrain set up an independent inquiry, did not flinch from its awful findings.  Bahrainis watched on national tv as their king heard the charges, heard him acknowledge “the benefit of objective and constructive criticism” and commit to adopt the report’s recommendations.

There is a difference between an autocracy that is inching its way to greater accountability, and an autocracy less and less constrained by responsibility to its people.  One we should help to evolve; the other we should help to overthrow.