The Age of the Autocrat?

Signs of last year's freedom setbacks are all around.


Surveying the world as 2007 dawns, it's hard to be optimistic. The daily headlines give us little cause to rejoice—at least, for those of us who once had hopes for the advancement of freedom around the world.

In Iraq, the latest news is of a death sentence handed down to a former dictator who subjected his people to decades of brutal tyranny. Debates about the death penalty aside, there was a time when Saddam Hussein's conviction on charges of crimes against humanity would have been clearly seen as a good day for freedom. Today, that news is overshadowed by the continuing tide of sectarian violence. Freedom from a tyrant's secret police and torture chambers means precious little to people who are not free from death squads and bombings. Indeed, to the average person, such random terror is far more frightening than organized state terror directed at political and religious dissidents. In such a situation, the existence of functioning, if fragile, democratic structures in Iraq is hardly something to celebrate.

Within the United States, 2006 may have marked a turning point in public opinion on the Iraq war. As recently as a year ago, a CBS News poll showed Americans evenly divided on whether the country had done the right thing in going to war. A poll in December 2006 found that only 39 percent believed it was the right decision, while 55 percent believed that the United States should have stayed out. For the first time, a majority, 53 percent, said it was unlikely that the United States would win the war.

Opinion among politicians and pundits has shifted as well. In December, President Bush admitted for the first time that the situation in Iraq was bad and a new approach was needed. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group appointed by Congress was notoriously bogged down in bitter disagreements, and its report was greeted largely with truly bipartisan disdain.

Some commentators who once strongly argued that Iraq could be a success story for freedom in the Middle East—such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—are now more likely to argue that it could have been a success story if we had only done things right. "Who lost Iraq?" is becoming a far more common question than, "Can we still win in Iraq?"

In a less bloody way, freedom's defeat is also visible in Russia. The G-8 summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in summer 2006, bringing together the heads of the world's leading industrial democracies, only highlighted the extent to which the host country lacks both democracy and a truly successful economy. The title of a Dec. 10 event at Boston University organized by the regional office of Amnesty International—"Dashed Hopes: Human Rights in the Former Soviet Union"—sums up the situation well.

The most optimistic speaker that day was Jack Matlock, former US ambassador to Moscow in the 1980s; and the most optimistic assessment he could give was that Russia today still has freedoms unimaginable under communism. Yet those freedoms are on the wane.

Perhaps the most startling part of the event was a documentary about the Russian reporter Andrei Babitsky and his efforts to cover the war in Chechnya in the early years of Vladimir Putin's presidency. The striking part wasn't Babitsky's persecution by the Russian security forces; it was the fact that, only a few years ago, his sharp criticisms of the government could still air on Russian television. Today, that would be almost as unthinkable as it was in communist days.

Ironically, one glimmer of hope comes from Iran, where extremists allied with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad lost in local elections. In the meantime, European democracies with growing Muslim populations are struggling with how to balance freedom of speech and respect for religious tradition. There are widespread concerns that democracy and tolerance in the West face a serious threat—either from Islamism, or from anti-Islamic xenophobia.

Why the setbacks for freedom, which seemed to be on the rise around the world a decade ago? Could it be that the rise and fall of democratic aspirations have their own cycles? Could it be that the universalist vision of freedom and democracy is doomed to fail, because it does not take cultural differences into account? Could it be that freedom's champions lack the resolve to stand up to its enemies? Future years may answer those questions.