Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Balance of Repression

The $12 trillion GDP activist United States is a factor to consider in the question of political freedom in countries whose interests and prejudices are not aligned with those of the United States.

Political freedom in Iran would mean Iranians would have the opportunity to install another Mossadegh. But it would also mean the US would have the opportunity to depose another Mossadegh and install another Shah. This is a serious consideration that I've never seen taken into account in discussions about political rights in countries that the US is hostile toward.

The examples of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, Chile under Pinochet and there are many others together provide a strong argument that US hostility is independent of the presence or lack of political freedom in a country.

Some countries have triggered the hostility of the US, as Cuba did by nationalizing US-owned properties; as Iran and Syria do by taking various populist measures that oppose Israel; as Iraq under Hussein did the same way; as Zimbabwe did by nationalizing white-owned farms and as Haiti under Aristide did somehow. (I really can't figure out what Aristide did that sparked the hostility he faced from the US.)

Once that hostility is triggered, the political environment for that country changes. The US has shown it is willing to devote a tremendous amount of resources to remove the government and replace it with one that will not pursue policies that the US does not approve.

If the triggering policy was a popular one, the US historically is certain to curtail democracy in the government it installs at least enough to ensure that it does not undertake the policies for which it overthrew the previous government. In Iraq, the US' solution is a government emplaced by elections, but that does not control either its own borders or its foreign policy. In Egypt, the US supports a more traditional police state that tortures its citizens.

So an interesting question is raised: exactly what kind of political freedoms can or should a government offer if it takes or may take policies that trigger US hostility.

My take on an answer is that measures, harsh or even draconian measures, should be taken to prevent foreign influence on the political system while domestic voices should be as unfettered as possible. It is difficult though, to design measures that an activist nation with two or three orders of magnitude more economic resources than its target cannot get around.

It is an important problem because competitive political systems produce much better leadership than non-competitive ones, but the competitive process must somehow be insulated from US influence or it will lead to Musharraf.

There is a small number of governments that have faced hostility from the United States for 20 years or more and are still intact. North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Syria, Iran, Russia and possibly a few others I've missed. In this small set, only Iran and Russia have passed ultimate leadership of the country outside of a single family. China's solution, though China does not today face the hostility from the US it faced during the cold war or that Iran faces now, seems to be a workable one.

This is a problem Iraq may have to solve, if it is not successfully broken up by the US. It is not trivial to create a stable government with a competitive political process that is able to pursue policies chosen by its population but is not one election or military coup away from a pro-US authoritarian dictatorship.

The US also one day may be less willing to devote its resources to overthrowing governments that undertake unapproved policies, or the set of policies that the US violently disapproves of may one day change. Until that time, the US proclivity to change governments is a factor that should be taken into account in discussions about the political structures of nations that want the freedom to undertake those policies.

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