Benign Autocracy in Iraq is a Recipe for Disaster
My entry in an email discussion of the proposal made
by Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev that
“Benign Autocracy Is Answer for Iraq” in the
LA Times recently:
Email is probably an insufficiently sophisticated instrument for
discussing these complicated matters, but let me just clarify what I said
about authoritarian states in the Middle East and terrorism. The first
thing to underline is that “terrorism” itself is only a tactic and not a
useful term of analysis. The question is, how and at what point, do
groups employing terrorism come to receive substantial (25% or more)
support from the general population.
I see al-Jihad al-Islami, al-Qaeda and other similar groups in the Sunni
world as a form of deviance. Socially deviant groups can be deviant for a
number of reasons. They might see as social goods things that general
society defines as vices. This is the case with, e.g., hard drugs like
cocaine. Or they might seek social goods of which society approves (for
instance wealth), in ways of which society disapproves (bank robbing).
Sometimes groups begin by being perceived as deviant and get mainstreamed
or come to power, as with Communism or many national liberation movements.
“Deviance” is not a static, essential characteristic. It is an
appropriate way to speak of small groups in severe tension with the wider
society at any one time. My thesis: *Where a substantial proportion of
the population feels politically blocked or disenfranchised, it can then
turn to some socially deviant political program out of desperation.*
Islamist terrorists tend to see some form of radical religious utopia as a
social good, whereas the relatively secular elites of Algeria and Egypt
reject this vision. Islamist terrorists seek to impose their utopia by
various repertoires of collective action and violence, including bombings,
shootings, attempting to undermine the state by depriving it of tourist
income (thus the violence against tourists at Luxor and Bali), and
large-scale terrorism against outside powers perceived to be propping up
the local status quo (this is what 9/11 was about).
All societies have a certain amount of deviant social and political
violence. But not all societies see over 100,000 persons killed in a
decade (Algeria), or see 20,000 to 30,000 persons jailed for essentially
thought crimes (Egypt in the ’90s), or see armed paramilitaries virtually
run the country (Afghanistan), or see spectacular attacks on civilians in
other countries (9/ll).
I conclude that some contemporary Middle Eastern societies are
characterized by much higher rates of social deviance rooted in religious
radicalism than is the case outside the region. I believe that this
situation is produced because
1) Social and political mobilization has occurred in the past 30 years in
these countries, making large segments of the population politically aware
and deeply dissatisfied with their powerlessness; and
2) “Benign autocracy” on the Algerian, Egyptian, Saudi and other models is
unable to accommodate the entry of these populations into the political
arena, thus blocking them, humiliating them, and inspiring them with
In such a situation, deviant political cultists who preach a utopia that
can be attained by violence get a hearing from people who would have
otherwise dismissed them.
Benign autocracy had a good run in Turkey until 1950, but imagine what the
literacy, urbanization, industrialization and political networking rates
were like there in the 1930s. Likewise Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s and
Algeria 1962-1989 could be managed in that way. But things change.
[Social mobilization refers to processes such as urbanization, industrialization,
increased literacy, access to mass media, access to electronic communications,
etc. Social mobilization does not necessarily, as Karl Deutsch wrongly believed,
produce political mobilization. Political mobilization involves collective action
through drawing on group resources to attain political goals. When a country’s
population is both socially and politically mobilized, autocracy becomes unstable).
The counter-examples, of [democratic] Turkey and Lebanon
in the 1970s, [where there was substantial political violence
despite “democratic” governments] are not actually
counter-examples. They were failures of democratic inclusiveness The
military in Turkey attempted to exclude the Turkish Left, and even
sometimes slightly left of center parties, from the political process,
which produced the political violence of the 1970s. Likewise, the
Lebanese political system excluded the Palestinians, creating a state
within a state; and it insisted on over-counting the Maronite Christians,
de facto excluding the growing Shiite plurality from political power. To
be successful in containing political violence, democratic systems must be
broadly inclusive. Some small groups will always feel left out, but when
you get to the point where 40% of a socially and politically mobilized
population feels disenfranchised, you are asking for trouble.
Although it is true that capitalist democracies can also produce small
terrorist groups, we have not seen in the past 40 years 100,000 Germans or
French or Italians or Japanese or Americans killed in fighting between
security forces and such groups; we have not seen 30,000 persons
incarcerated for thought crimes; we have not seen take-overs of entire
countries by Baader-Meinhof. The differences in scale are enormous here.
I believe this is because, in politically and socially mobilized
societies, parliamentary governance typically allows constituents to feel
they can have an impact in areas that matter to them. There are always
small groups who do not feel that way, of course, but if they are very
small they can be contained.
Autocracy of various sorts, whether “benign” or not, is incompatible with
the level of political and social mobilization now characteristic of most
societies in the Middle East, and for the US to push it is foolish in the
In Iraq, the US has raised expectations, just as the Algerian military did
in 1989. Now imposing a dictator would be analogous to the 1991
cancellation of the election results in that country. A similar civil war
could well ensue. If you think the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps, the
al-Da`wa paramilitary, the Peshmerga, the tribal forces, etc., are going
to meekly acquiesce in an American-imposed “soft” dictatorship, you don’t
have much political imagination.