Use and misuse of tyrants

When the French monarchy offered its help in 1778 to the struggling American colonies, it was in every way far more oppressive than the British government from which they were trying to separate.

This fact did not keep the American rebels from eagerly taking their aid — although they detested everything that France stood for then. (France’s interest, of course, was to weaken England, which the colonists all understood.)

In World War II, Winston Churchill said if Adolph Hitler invaded hell, he would make a pact with the devil against him. This was what he and President Franklin Roosevelt did when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and for four years the two battlers for the rights of mankind made common cause with one of history’s epic tyrants and murderers. Joseph Stalin went on being a killer and tyrant, but helped bleed Hitler’s armies to death.

Then the war ended, and Churchill and Roosevelt’s successors went back to fighting the killer and tyrant, along the way making common cause with many unsavory figures who could help turn the communists back.

In extremes, one took help where one could, and worked things out later. But that was the past.

And then, threats became ideological and ideas about one’s own interests changed. Alarmed at the success the communists had in attaching themselves to Third World liberation rebels, in 1957 then-Sen. John Kennedy urged his country to ditch her old ally, France, and ally herself with Algerian nationalists, to steer their drive for autonomy and for independence into less dangerous channels, out of the communists’ orbit and hands.

Thirty years later, President Ronald Reagan did as Sen. Ted Kennedy urged and threaded the needle in the Philippines and in Central America between Marxist insurgents and oppressive, discredited right-wing regimes.

Reagan and Kennedy, who believed rights came from God and the longing for them had to be universal, thought repressive regimes were unstable in the long run, as the desire for freedom would sooner or later well up and then blow them apart.

President George W. Bush, who also believed this, found on Sept. 11, 2001, when terror came without warning from the one part of the world wholly untouched by republican movements, that domestic oppression in faraway countries produced an existentialist threat all its own.

Bush linked the terror attacks to the impacted regimes they grew out of, but the universal dearth of democracies among Arab nations meant he would have to seek regional allies among “useful tyrants,” the Muslim version of other situational “allies,” the Louis XVIs, Stalins, Somozas and Pinochets of the universe, whose behavior was tolerated, at least for the moment, because of their practical aid.

Egypt kept to its cold peace with Israel and did not attack Iraq, but at the same time perversely empowered the terrorists.

“Many of these regimes have chosen a survival strategy that seems designed to ensure revolution,” wrote Bush aide Michael Gerson. “They have taken baby steps of reform … while keeping a monopoly on political power. This has encouraged all legitimate discontent and opposition to gather in the only healthy alternative … the radical mosque.”

“Realism” turned out to be unrealistic. It was self-defeating, and at last it imploded as bad bargains do.

Two years after the Constitutional Convention, the French monarchy that enabled it crumbled. Forty years after it helped Churchill and Roosevelt vanquish the Axis (and grabbed for itself the east half of Europe), the Soviet Union
collapsed.

Nine years and six months after 9/11, Egypt’s “useful tyrant” whose regime produced some of the terrorists was under siege by his people.

Reagan and Kennedy would not have been startled.

Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”

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