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November 26, 2014

H. Brandt Ayers: Power held too long

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Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2014 3:30 am

At a dinner party recently, a well-informed woman observed, “From the Ukraine to the Middle East, I don’t remember us having so many problems all at the same time.”

Her observation is correct. When the world held its breath that one of two superpowers, Russia and the United States, might unleash end-of-the-earth weapons, there was a semblance of order.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism itself smashed the old order like a rack of billiard balls, sending nations and tribal divisions within nations caroming without any sense of order.

Until some new equilibrium is fashioned or the world falls exhausted into a new pattern of interests and alliances, we are doomed to a messy period of transition. It may or may not be any consolation to remember it took civil war to make America a nation out of squabbling states.

Out of the chaos has emerged some good news and one flesh-crawling evil, ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is guilty of atrocities that, if not as coldly organized, are of a kind with those of the Nazis. In ISIS’s blitzkrieg into one Iraqi town, the men were lined up and shot. The women were given as prizes to the troops.

The good news is that there is a decades-long trend of fewer dictatorships. In 2011, uprisings overturned lengthy dictatorships, including Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and El Abadine Ben Ali of Tunisia.

An NPR study reminds us that in the 1970s, almost all Latin American countries were dictatorships. By 1990, as part of a delegation from the Inter American Press Association, we visited the presidents of newly elected democracies in Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

Except for Cuba and Venezuela, the rest of the subcontinent are Western-oriented democracies and economies.

In 1998, when “support” of the iron hand of the former Soviet Union was removed, virtually all of Eastern Europe freed itself from dictatorships almost simultaneously. The end of the Cold War left many other nations without the “support” they received from Russia, which had results all round the world.

In the past three years, 17 sub-Saharan African nations have held elections.

What elemental force of human nature drives a man such as Nouri al-Maliki to cling desperately to the prime ministry of Iraq without the support of his original sponsor, the United States, and the main internal parties?

Man has always sought power, the odorless, invisible, tasteless urge to control his environment. The loss of it is perceived as the loss of everything, of self, of wealth and pride.

“L’etat, c’est moi,” Louis XIV told the Parliament of Paris in April 1655, “the State is Me.” And indeed it was, a glorious one, but his expensive wars and favoritism of the favored built resentment that climaxed with the beheading of Louis XVI.

Maliki can’t possibly think he’s reigning over a Shiite version of Louis XIV’s France, but power is intoxicating. He can’t be thinking, “Where will Iraq be without me, but where will I be without my title?” A bullet in the head was the answer to the Diem dictatorship in Vietnam.

Even ancient dictatorships such as imperial China weaken over time, are embarrassed by superior Western technology, and spawn insurgents such as the Boxers, who were a frightening presence when my grandfather arrived there in 1901 as a medical missionary.

The Boxers were fueled by resentment of Western intervention in China and by a hybrid form of religion. Many innocent missionaries were publicly beheaded by the Boxers.

A perfunctory scan of history should inform Maliki and all dictators, past and present, that as an aristocratic Frenchman advised his son, “Times are different, if we want things to stay the same, a lot of changes will have to be made.”

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