Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Managing Dictators

Daniel Drezner cites a substantial number of cases around the world of dictators cracking down on dissidents. He ascribes this to a conclusion reached by such dictators that the world, and especially the United States, is distracted by the Iraq war:

These crackdowns are part of the costs of war [C'mon, how do you know that these actions wouldn't have taken place anyway?--ed. They very well might have, but the various governments would have had to respond to press inquiries and U.S. policy responses.

Mickey Kaus has also commented.

The soundness of the methodology here is not clear to me:

1. Where is the evidence that the number of "crackdowns" has increased - or that such groups of crackdowns don't happen from time to time anyway? Just rounding up a list of what's going on now is hardly more than a teaser. What's the standard for a defining a "crackdown" in a generally repressive society? The term hardly seems self-defining.

2. Where is the evidence that such dictators have actually in the past moderated their behavior in response to press inquiries and U.S. policy responses? Are we to assume that Mr. Castro, for example, moderates his behavior towards his critics in response to press inquiries and U.S. policy responses? Is that what happened when he shipped us all those Marielitos? Isn't the proposition that chattering at dictators makes them behave just restating the discredited Jimmy Carter approach to human rights? What's the difference?

3. The issue is not whether these actions wouldn't have taken place anyway. Dictators normally crack down on dissidents to safeguard the dictator's hold on power - although dictators do have a record of excessive efforts. How do we know that these dictators are not just watching another dictator (Saddam Hussein) lose power, and want to send a message to their own trouble-makers not to get any ideas?

4. What evidence is there that US or press scrutiny of any of these dictators has been lower during the war, or that any of them thought it would be lower. In fact, coverage of and attention to Castro's crackdown has been rather intense.

To say the least: I am not convinced.

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