The Long View 2002-04-03: The Necessary Man

As it turns out, we now have an excellent idea of just what evils were occasioned by deposing tyrants in the Middle East. However, John was correct in pointing out that the Ottomans were less likely to bribe their problems to go annoy their neighbors. Twelve years on, I'm not sure it was worth it, but I can at least see the argument.

The Necessary Man

The last, best hope of tyrants these days is the argument that deposing them will just occasion worse evils. You hear this most frequently about President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Remove him, the argument goes, and Iraq might split into three parts, or require prolonged occupation, or something. The same point has also been made about Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority. Supposedly, he has been all that prevents the Palestinian areas from disintegrating into local chiefdoms, each under the control of its own terrorist organization.

This strategy does have precedent, particularly in the Middle East. During the fifty years before the First World War, the Ottoman Empire still ruled most of the area, and even part of the Balkans, but it was known as "The Sick Man of Europe." Despite the empire's growing weakness, however, the Great Powers kept it in existence because they could not decide what would happen to the pieces it after it broke up. Their caution was merited. The disposition that the Allies ultimately made of the former Ottoman territories was well characterized by David Fromkin's history of the region, The Peace to End All Peace.

The problem with extending this analogy to the Middle East today is that even the late Ottoman Empire functioned, after a fashion. Though the communities of the empire were increasingly unhappy under the imperial roof, and though the government often responded with repression, at least the Ottomans did not export their problems with minority groups. The empire was in greater danger from its neighbors than they were from the empire. This is not the case with Baathist Iraq or the Palestinian Authority, polities whose aggressiveness is mitigated only by their incompetence.

The notion that it is always best to keep the devil you know does have a drawback: it seems to commend itself chiefly to devils. Albert Speer, the Nazi Minister of Armaments, noted this in late April of 1945, when regime continuity was the cutting-edge policy prescription among his colleagues. He put the matter well in his memoir, Inside the Third Reich (1970), pp. 486-7.

"The world in which Himmler was still moving was fantastic. 'Europe cannot manage without me in the future either,' he commented. 'It will go on needing me as Minister of Police. After I've spent an hour with Eisenhower he'll appreciate that fact. They'll soon realize that they're dependent on me, or they'll have a hopeless chaos on their hands.'...

"Finally, Himmler after all held out a faint prospect of my becoming a minister in his government. For my part, with some sarcasm I offered him my plane so that he could pay a farewell visit to Hitler. But Himmler waved that aside. He had no time for that now, he said. Unemotionally, he explained: 'Now I must prepare my new government. And besides, my person is too important for the future of Germany for me to risk the flight.'"

Not really.

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