Talking to Dictators
by Hannes Artens, Fri Jul 27, 2007 at 05:57:04 PM EDT
Since Monday night's Democratic debate political pundits have completely allowed themselves to be taken in by the spin zones of the Hilary/Obama campaigns. In an endless back and forth as intellectually stimulating as Bill O'Reilly showing "awful stuff" from DailyKos on his show to shock the nation, the two Democratic frontrunners seem not to get tired of portraying each other as either callow or "Bush/Cheney lite".
All the kerfuffle aside, no one yet has come up with the question I keep wondering at since watching Obama's "I would"-response when asked about whether being willed to meet dictators during his first year in office: What about the dictators? Are they actually interested in meeting either Hilary or Obama? No one bothered to put themselves in their shoes. Them avidly thirsting for a shake-hands in the Rose Garden or impatiently roaming their mansions like a caged tiger waiting for a call from Washington - in Fidel Castro's case for over forty years - apparently was taken for granted. To believe this requires an abundance of hubris that - I'm afraid to say this even on this site - is almost French.
Before I run the risk of being chased from this forum tarred and feathered, let me illustrate what happened to France's Nikolas Sarkozy two weeks ago. En route to North Africa for his first official overseas trip the president was kindly informed by Morocco to better defer his visit indefinitely until he was willing to dedicate more than a couple of hours to France's most prominent regional ally (in fact, Rabat was literally pissed for him visiting Algeria, their opponent in the struggle over Western Sahara, first). No doubt, King Mohammed VI of Morocco is no dictator, yet a certain parallelism of how France perceives and deals with her former colonies and America occasionally with the rest of the world is undeniable. Charles Krauthammer today went so far not even la grande nation would have ever dared since Charles de Gaulle:
"To be on the same stage as the leader of the world's greatest power is of course a prize ... The presence of an American president is a valued good to be rationed -- and granted only in return for important considerations ...
The country might decide that it prefers, yes, a Republican -- say, 9/11 veteran Rudy Giuliani -- to a freshman senator who does not instinctively understand why an American president does not share the honor of his office with a malevolent clown like Hugo Chavez."
Hugo Chavez is a formidable case in point. I, frankly, doubt him being uber-eager to meet the next American president. He'd rather capitalize on turning her/him down and playing a tape of their conversation on his weekly talk show Alό Presidente - the audience's guffaw and them loving him for leading `the leader of the free world' a merry dance ensured. Neither I anticipate Fidel Castro casting a somersault to liaise with Hilary/Obama/Giuliani; after all, his economically and ideologically bankrupt regime isn't still alive for ordinary Cubans' love for Communism but for their Maximo Leader defying an imperialist power they have experienced hardly any different than Algeria and Morocco had France throughout the nineteenth century. Note: Dictators can live long and prosper on their rogue status. They grow into their roles of international pariahs with great gusto, the more so as their opponent is traditionally hated among the populace. They can bank in on a rallying-around-the-flag effect, denounce critics as collaborators, blame economic failures on sanctions, and exploit embargoes by controlling the black market. At the end of the day, it's always ordinary folks suffering from sanctions and isolation - in fact, a sign of shiftlessness lauded as a panacea - not the occupants of palaces.
Other dictators, forced to rule against an ever growing anti-Americanism in their countries, may not be that keen on recurring photo ops with American presidents either. Sure, Pervez Musharraf doesn't mind the $10 billion in military aid the U.S. has bestowed on him since 2001, but he knows bloody well that every trip to Washington may turn out his last (the previous military ruler of Pakistan, General Zia ul Haq, was blown up on his plane together with the American ambassador). Note: Cuddling with the U.S. can become quite a hazard for dictators.
There, however, have been dictators, who at the end of their lives had realized the need for change, or reformers, who were desperately trying to prize open a dictatorial system. They have committed the big mistake to reach out to the U.S. and all they got was even less than a lousy T-shirt. As has happened to Hafez al-Assad and Mohammad Khatami - for missing these two greatest opportunities to make peace in the Middle East in decades Hilary's husband has to bear the blame; so, she better not talk pretty big.
Final note: As France's days of trois couleurs-un drapeau-un empire are over beyond recall America has to accustom herself to a post-Iraq world order, in which she still is the mightiest but not the only great power anymore. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his peers can easily afford to spurn an invitation from Barack Obama; their obstreperousness will win them kudos at home, emulation from like-minded outcasts abroad, and Moscow and Beijing are only too happy to purchase their oil or sell them arms without demanding formal curtsies. If, however, the rare opportunity arises of a dictator displaying his willingness to talk without preconditions you better seize the day; not to reward him for his past behavior, but to ameliorate the suffering of his country's people and to enhance your strategic position.