It has happened before that revolution has brought on counter-revolution even more fierce. Thus, the Arab Spring, which was the occasion of so much hope, has been followed by a season of repression teaching a lesson in the brutal effectiveness of ruthless power.
If dreams of democracy were contagious over the course of the uprisings in the Middle East, it appears that the lessons of the dictator have become their own kind of contagion. From Egypt to Syria, and even to Ukraine, dictators are hoping to show that government, free of the constraints of conscience, can effectively work its will.
It’s easy to imagine how Bashar Assad, president of Syria, viewed events as they unfolded in Egypt two years ago. He saw that Hosni Mubarak was too old and his regime too calcified to withstand the demands coming from Tahrir Square. Young, urban, cosmopolitan Egyptians were demanding freedom and democracy, and with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood, they swept Mubarak from power.
Assad can only have concluded: That will never happen to me. The generals who still wielded power behind the scenes in Egypt nurtured a similar thought. They stayed in the background and watched as Egyptians elected a Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, who proceeded to demonstrate the inability of the Brotherhood actually to govern. Soon the counter-revolution swept away the hopes of the revolution. The elected president was in jail, and a general was in charge. And now the new military regime invites continuing violence from Islamic insurgents who have already begun a campaign of terrorism within Egypt.
When the Arab Spring came to Syria, Assad showed he was not going to make the mistake of countenancing dissent. Many in the West assumed he would be swept out as Mubarak had been, but he had learned the uses of power from his father, who had razed cities and murdered thousands to demonstrate that he would not be challenged. The West has had little faith in the revolutionaries of Syria, who include jihadists the United States has no interest in supporting. Nor has the West had faith in a military option of its own. Thus, Assad is doing what dictators have done forever — turning his own nation into a wasteland.
Now comes Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, caught between the demands of his imperious neighbor, Russia, and his neighbors to the west, who point the way to constitutional democracy, the rule of law and greater prosperity. His government’s fierce response against the protest movement wracking the country suggests he has strayed into the camp of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the exercise of ruthless power is its own justification.
The idea is not without precedent. How many millions of Ukrainians did Josef Stalin liquidate? Soviet oppression kept the Warsaw Pact in check for decades. Putin, presiding over a country with its own currents of discontent, is pursuing an authoritarian model, and he has apparently intimidated Yanukovych into following suit.
The United States has no magic wand for dispelling the belief by foreign leaders that, at least in the short term, they serve their own interests by means of repression. The danger is that the United States will be manipulated by foes taking advantage of our preference for peace. We are engaged in important negotiations with Iran. At the same time Iran is aiding the brutal repression in Syria. We want to believe that Iran is serious about rapprochement with the United States. At the same time, we would also like to see Iran curtail its assistance to Assad.
It has been the mantra of President Obama that there is no military solution for Syria. If you are Bashar Assad, you probably believe otherwise. The continuing punishment he is inflicting on his own people is showing that a weak revolution is always vulnerable to a strong counter-revolution. The Putin solution is having its day in numerous venues, at least for now, which requires that the United States and the rest of the West continue to demonstrate that victories won through repression are hollow victories only.
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