Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Anne Applebaum is peddling a democracy trope that no one is buying – Responsible Statecraft

Posted by M. C. on November 21, 2021

Written by
Daniel Larison

Anne Applebaum has written an essay that takes aim at what she calls “Autocracy Inc.,” a loose collection of various authoritarian governments that collaborate with one another in sanctions busting and sharing tools of domestic repression. 

The portions of the article that recount the experiences of dissidents and victims of government abuses are informative, but her discussion of the global problem of rising authoritarianism is severely hampered by ideological blind spots that let many U.S. allies and clients off the hook for their own authoritarian practices and ignore the terrible toll that broad U.S. sanctions have taken on tens of millions of ordinary people in the targeted countries. 

Applebaum subscribes to a mythology of 20th century history in which the U.S. is the undoubted champion of democracy. This effectively erases huge parts of U.S. Cold War history and fails to take seriously the extent to which U.S. policies during the “war on terror” have been huge gifts to authoritarians everywhere. Her choice to focus almost exclusively on designated adversaries of the United States tells a convenient, partial story in which the U.S. is simply the foe of authoritarianism. A more comprehensive treatment of the issue would recognize how often our government has been its willing enabler. 

The essay is the cover article for the new edition of The Atlantic published under the title “The Bad Guys Are Winning.” The title sums up the simplistic and one-sided view contained in the essay: the “bad guys” are invariably the guys that also happen to be opposed to the United States, and almost all the authoritarians that are aligned with the U.S. receive no serious criticism. The image on the cover shows five leaders in a row wearing dark suits like some bad parody of Reservoir Dogs, and of these only one, Erdogan, is the head of state of a formal U.S. ally. The article briefly acknowledges Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ways, but it seems that he was included on the cover mainly because Turkey has become more of a rogue actor in its foreign policy and “has become openly hostile to former European and NATO allies.” 

One will look in vain for any mention of the appalling human rights record of the Egyptian dictator Sisi that the U.S. continues to arm and support, and there are only the briefest references to the governments in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and then only because of their relationships with China. Despite their well-known role as benefactors of authoritarians throughout the region from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not counted as part of “Autocracy Inc.” To the extent that “bad guys” are “winning” today, at least part of the explanation for it is that some of them have been given carte blanche by Washington to jail and kill their critics, destabilize other countries, and commit war crimes in reckless military interventions. 

Applebaum’s chief complaint about sanctions on these states is that they are supposedly inadequate and are “deteriorating over time.” The huge numbers of people impoverished by these efforts to isolate their leaders are nowhere to be found. Applebaum acknowledges that sanctions aren’t changing regime behavior anywhere, but she never considers that this tool has worked to strengthen the grip of the authoritarian leaders over their peoples. Cutting a country off from the rest of the world is a boon for these leaders, who can then exploit the imposed scarcity to reward loyalists with access to the resources that remain. A sanctioned, impoverished country is one that is easier to control, and so the most-sanctioned states are also the ones that have some of the most entrenched authoritarian systems that have only become worse as “maximum pressure” has done its damage. 

Nations under siege by foreign powers rarely seek to change their governments, and instead they tend to tolerate even the worst leaders because of the external threat.

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