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How I Would Have Argued Intelligence Squared US: “Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators”

Eric C and I are NPR junkies. (He started it.) And one of my favorite shows is Intelligence Squared US. Host John Donvan throws down an Oxfordian challenge to two sets of debaters to argue topics ranging from banning college football to genetically engineered babies. I love it--especially compared to cable news coverage--because the panelists go very deep into topics I often don’t know much about.

That was not the case for their topic last fall, “Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators”.
   
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t listened to the above episode and actually care about who wins and loses, don’t keep reading.)

When it comes to the Arab Spring, I have pretty strong feelings. That’s why we spent weeks discussing this topic in January. To be clear, I am wildly for the proposition; elected Islamists are better than dictators. Always. I believe that everyone around the world is entitled to democracy, not just America.

As I listened to the debate, I started to get worried. My side let the other side set the terms. The opponents then leveraged the politics of fear to their advantage. I kept yelling at the podcast, “No, you should have said this! Don’t concede that! Say that’s a lie!” Since they didn’t...

My side lost.

But my side didn’t just lose, they got trounced. They started off with more supporters (38% of the audience), but only ended up with 44%. The opponents went from 31% of the audience to a whopping 47% supporting their side. For Intelligence Squared, that’s a walloping.

Which really hurts because this topic is probably the neatest summation of the entire “Arab Spring” issue. I mean, you could say, “Arab Spring, good or bad?”, but phrased this way, it really captures the nuance of the various positions. Considered among other foreign policy topics--the rise of China, Russia’s ongoing stuff--- this is far and away the most important change going on in the world.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I hate losing political arguments. (If I haven’t said that before, well I do.) So today and Wednesday, I want to set the record straight. On Wednesday, I will critique the arguments my side made during the debate. But first, four key points explaining why elected Islamists are better than dictators that my side left out:

1. This is about the long game. As long as the U.S. pursues short-term interests (which means installing dictators) over the long term (advancing democratic ideals), it will always have fractured relationships. This was true in the Cold War, and it has been true since 9/11. Pursuing a short term strategy will always keep America in danger.

The best example is the CIA’s involvement in Iran. The elected Iranian government in the 1940s started nationalizing oil, so, with Western help, the Shah took over. Ever since, the Iranians have resented American meddling in their country (including Western support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war). In each case, the US favored actions that benefited us in the short term, but have kept the problems with Iran continuing.

2. Let’s drop the “isms” argument. The opponents, as I’ll describe on Wednesday, managed to connect Islamism to fascism and Hitler. Well played, though totally inaccurate. On its face, this motion scares Americans with the dangerous sounding, “Islamism” and its connection to terrorism. This is on its face absurd, and I would make that point much more clearly.

3. Elections trump dictators absolutely. If I were debating on Intelligence Squared, I would have told a story that personifies this for the audience. I would have emphasized what it was really like to live under a dictator, asking the audience to imagine themselves with relatives disappearing to secret prisons and living under the crushing hand of dictatorship. If the other side wants to use fear, then pound them back with tragedy and horror.

4. Emphasize the hypocrisy. The problem with American foreign policy is that, to pursue American interests--variously either pro-American business policies or protecting American lives--American foreign policy often asks other people to sacrifice their liberty. In essence, to keep Americans free, we ask that others live in tyranny. Otherwise, how could any American argue that dictators are good for the people of those countries? This hypocrisy is the primary criticism of American foreign policy around the globe, and the primary driver of hostility towards Americans.

More than anything else, supporting the “Arab Spring” is a moral issue. Any American who believes in freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--for all mankind as the Declaration of Independence clarifies--must support the Arab Spring. You cannot rail against tyranny in America while supporting tyranny abroad. Doing so is either the height of arrogance, hypocrisy, ignorance or all three.

five comments

I am afraid pointing out the hypocrisy of short term solutions will have little affect in swaying public opinion regarding the Arab Spring. It seems a majority of Americans feel quite comfortable ensuring their security at the expense of foreign nations. How else do we explain the overwhelming support for the use of armed drones in Pakistan, Yemen, etc. while also believing the use of those same drones on US soil to be an affront to civil liberties. Isn’t The American identity one wholly concerned with self-absorption? Is ‘American Exceptionalism’ rooted in the noun ‘exception’ and not the adjective ‘exceptional’, meaning we exclude ourselves instead of being unusual or outstanding?


The issue is really one of foreign policy, and whether the west should support democratic reform, with potentially unfavourable results, or known dictators. But I argue that both are bad options, and that resources should really be spent on developing robust, non-partisan institutions.

Support for dictatorships may have short term benefits but is bad long term policy for all the reasons you argue. But blind support for elections is also bad policy – not because it may result in the election of governments we don’t care for, but because the mere act of voting creates unrealistic expectations among the voting population. How many proud wielders of ink-stained fingers are now disgruntled citizens feeling that they are somehow the victims of a giant scam? How have their lives benefited from electing what have in many cases been inept governments? How much longer will they support the practice of democracy?

The problem isn’t with the selection of leaders, but instead is in the supporting organs of the state. Do the armed forces defend the nation or the leader? Do the laws serve to protect or do they promote retribution? Are the police and the courts above corruption? Does the civil service get paid enough to be above graft? Are the legal requirements to conduct financial transactions or start a business simple or do they involve multiple layers of complex red tape? Do agricultural policies promote food security or are they focussed on forcing farmers to grow cash crops for export? Are there checks and balances on how much influence special interest groups can exert on political leaders? Are there checks and balances to prevent the rise of shadow governments, be they the military or cabals of business interest groups?

These are the issues that really affect quality of life. They involve a lot of slow mundane work that doesn’t capture headlines, but if no one pays attention to them then it doesn’t matter how many elections we support – all we’ll be doing is perpetuating a cycle of failing/ed states that lack the means to haul themselves up to first world status.

Maybe none of the above was relevant to the specific debate question, but it was a shallow question designed more for emotional argument than actually finding solutions to a problem.


The big question is: Will your elected Islamists allow and abide by an election that resulted in their being replaced by non-Islamists? If they do, maybe they’re better than a dictator. If they don’t, they ain’t.

Herr Hitler was elected to office.

Lee Kuan Yew was pretty authoritarian and Singapore did pretty good.

The pursuit of happiness is argued by some to mean the right of an individual to own property and do with it what he feels is best. So maybe a pertinent question is who is going to more fully recognize personal property rights?


An elected Islamist who doesn’t allow elections is suddenly not an “elected” Islamist. And the phrase “Islamist” is tricky since we don’t actually know what it means. And many European parliaments (and the Israeli parliament) have religious parties. So it isn’t just Muslim based parties but allegedly extreme parties.

However, rightfully elected governments have always done better fighting terrorists than dictators, who often find it convenient. For Americans to try to prop up dictators, then wonder why it goes wrong. That’s not a sentence, but my feelings.


Michael C you artful dodger you. An Islamist who is elected then doesn’t allow election is not elected?! No, they were elected. That is a fact that cannot be changed by subsequent behavior. They are just elected officials who refuse to give up power, like Herr Hitler.

No, rightfully elected govs have not always done better fighting terrs than dictatorial govs. Piker dictators may not do so good but when you get to the big leaguers like the Soviets, the Nazis, Imperial Japan, the Red Chinese, the North Korean Communists, those guys do extremely well at suppressing any kind of opposition. The unfortunate fact is that a small war or counter-terror or counter-opposition strategy of kill ‘em all actually works well, and those guys can pull off. Even the Saudis do pretty good and they ain’t in the same league as the Reds.