When Dictators Dictate

Why do Arab thugs always get away with murder?

In his remarkable book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag Montefiore does a service by focusing on the intimacies of power. In his detailed, highly readable account of Joseph Stalin's entourage, Montefiore shows how power is often a byproduct of informal interaction, a thing of the dinner table, the hunting expedition, the boudoir.

But Montefiore also poses another question, one more specific to the Soviet leader. Why is it that the experienced, ruthless, conceited men and women around Stalin could so easily fall under his ruinous power, to the extent that some remained loyal even after the murder or imprisonment of members of their families? The answer is deceptively simple: There was no sovereign rule of law to mediate the relation. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Stalin himself became the law, replacing the hard but more egalitarian conventions of the Communist Party. The absolute leader destroyed a system and replaced it with his own absolute ego.

Observing that the absence of the rule of law leads to the abuse of power is trite. However, this can be applied to state systems, and helps explain why destabilizing dictatorships can so easily impose their will on other sometimes more powerful states around them. The Arab state system is a prime example of this condition. Looking back several decades, and up to this day, a recurrent pattern in the Middle East and North Africa is that of the most thuggish regimes managing to get away with murder, even though their reckless behavior endangers the interests of other regimes.

Take Libya's Moammar Qaddafi in the 1970s and 1980s, or Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s. For a long time Qaddafi backed Palestinian groups like that of Abu Nidal, which assassinated members of mainstream Palestinian factions. He would also routinely use terrorism to blackmail Arab regimes, even as the Libyan leader financed conflicts throughout the Arab world. Qaddafi sent his goons to kidnap Libyan opposition figures in places like Cairo, embarrassing the Egyptian government, and was responsible for the abduction and murder of Lebanon's preeminent Shiite leader, Imam Musa al-Sadr. Until Qaddafi shifted his attention to African affairs in the 1990s and cut a baroque deal with the West over the Lockerbie affair, he was a spectacular nuisance in the Middle East. He rarely even bothered to attend Arab League summits, and when he did so he usually made a spectacle of himself.

Saddam's story is even better known. The Iraqi leader, a noted admirer of Stalin, began a destructive war with Iran in 1980, which almost undermined the equilibrium in the Gulf. Nevertheless, Arab anxieties of an Iranian victory compelled most regimes in the region, except Syria, to put their faith in the Iraqi leader, whom they funded massively. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a step too far for Saddam, and the Arab world rallied against him. However, once the war ended, the Arab regimes began a process of reintegrating Iraq into their regional order. It wasn't smooth, the United States remained a major obstacle, but there was a much greater fear in Arab capitals of what might happen to the Sunni-dominated arrangement in Iraq if Saddam lost power, than any determination to be rid of this elephant in a crystal factory.

In both cases, Qaddafi and Saddam not only managed to survive politically, despite everything they also remained members of the Arab club. There was an important message here. The Arab state system, for all its ability to impose stalemate and resist change, was surprisingly weak when it came to imposing order and stability. It was weak because there were no effectual inter-Arab institutions to bolster it, thin legitimacy propping up autocratic regimes, weak civil societies, few individual rights, and little democracy; in a nutshell no rule of law. Because the rule of law was mostly absent, the more irresponsible states had considerable latitude to pursue policies harming everyone, without risking retribution.

Today, the Arab state system faces a new challenge: Bashar Assad's Syria. Since he was forced to withdraw his soldiers from Lebanon in 2005, the Syrian president has fought to retain his relevance by playing on several fronts. He has continued to allow al-Qaeda militants into Iraq through Syria's borders so they can carry out suicide attacks thwarting Iraqi normalization; he has consolidated Syria's relations with an Iran that is on the verge of undermining the balance of power in the Gulf; he has supported, with Iran, an assertive, rising Hamas against the Palestinian Authority; and in Lebanon he has continued to back Hezbollah while trying to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which represents a parliamentary majority hostile to Syria.

Most of the Sunni-led Arab states are alarmed. They worry that Assad's behavior in Iraq might bring about a full-scale Sunni-Shiite confrontation that could swallow up the region. The alliance with Shiite Iran is of particular concern, since it poses a direct threat to regimes in the Gulf that have suppressed their Shiite minorities. The actions of Hamas and Hezbollah, by complicating prospects for a negotiated settlement with Israel, have obliged most Arab states to contemplate more decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Their regimes may not be able to survive this if the outcome is a general revitalization of militancy in the region, particularly Islamist militancy, that would target them first.

As for Lebanon, a Sunni-Shiite conflict can be unleashed at any moment by Syria, and could spread to the region. However, there is a difference there, because standing against Assad's logic of violence is a rare instance where the rule of law is likely to be applied in the Arab world. A mixed Lebanese-international court is currently being set up to try suspects in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Senior Syrian officials are most likely behind the crime, and in early June the tribunal, whose establishment was blocked in Beirut by Syria's allies, was set up under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

Last April 24, before the tribunal was approved by the Security Council, Assad met in Damascus with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The minutes of the meeting were leaked, plainly by the U.N., to the French daily Le Monde. In an exchange astonishing for its brute frankness, the idiom of the gun faced off against the idiom of international law. After Ban told Assad that Syria had "an important role" to play in ending political divisions in Lebanon and called on him to support creation of the Hariri tribunal, this is what the Syrian leader answered:

In Lebanon, divisions and confessionalism have been deeply anchored for more than 300 years. Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country's] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.

Assad then issued what Ban could plainly see was a threat: "[This instability] will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ... This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon."

With the Hariri tribunal now a reality, will Assad fulfill that threat? Can he? Don't expect Arab states to contain the Syrian leader, even though his actions might bring all their houses down. But for a brief instance, law and accountability might stand a chance against intimidation and bullying. This is worth pondering whenever someone looks at the Middle East and declares that it was the Americans who brought chaos to the region. They hardly did the region any favors, but the Arab state system was always too flimsy anyway to sustain steadiness for very long.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.

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