As the Obama administration continues to treat the U.S.-taxpayer-financed dictator Hosni Mubarak with kid gloves, media outlets like Salon have rightly pointed out that our support of undemocratic tyrants is not limited to Egypt. It has become more the norm than the exception. The question is: why? Why are we, a supposed beacon of democracy, so invested in so many dictatorships?
Obviously, there are many answers to that question. Some of it has to do with imperial aspirations, as taboo as that is to even mention. Some of it has to do with good ol' fashioned Big Money lobbying, as I showed yesterday. And some of it has to do with what Dr. Martin Luther King identified in his Riverside Church speech: We back dictators over democracy because we "refuse to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments" -- profits often guaranteed by dictators where they wouldn't be so guaranteed by popularly elected governments.
As powerful as these motives are, however, there is still one other factor at play: addiction.
Dictators are, in a way, like a drug. We start out backing them, perhaps thinking it will be a momentary alliance, just like a person might take a single hit from the pipe. But then, the subjugated population begins to revolt, just like the body begins to revolt without the drug. So we start intensifying our support for the dictator to keep the increasingly restive population down, just like the addict starts to consume more drugs to prevent the body from going into a more painful withdrawal.
This cycle of addiction then snowballs (to badly mix metaphors). The more angry the subjugated population becomes at the dictator and us for backing him, the more we feel an urgency to help prop up the dictator for fear of an ever-more powerful backlash against that dictator and, by extension, us. It's like the addict thinking the only way to survive and mitigate pain is to keep upping the dosage.
Of course, the only way to truly fix the problem is some sort of intervention -- to break the cycle on our own terms, rather than effectively overdose. Instead of, say, unendingly backing dictators like the Shah of Iran until the repression creates the condition for a catastrophic fundamentalist revolution (overdose), we should be looking for ways to proactively break this addiction cycle completely as a way to avoid such catastrophe.
That's what the Egypt protests still (amazingly) provides us right now -- a way to break that cycle without helping to further create the conditions for catastrophe. Right now, we have an out -- protests in the street still give us a fleeting opportunity to back away from our addiction to dictatorship (in this case, the Mubarak dictatorship). Incredibly (and thankfully), despite our 30 year backing of Mubarak, it doesn't seem like we are at that overdose point yet -- that point of, say, an Iran-style revolution based on raw anti-American anger. And indeed, if we are truly worried about an Iran-style conflagration in Egypt, the best way to try to avoid it isn't to back the dictator creating such a backlash - it's to stop backing the dictator.
Certainly, there will be unpleasant moments if we finally decide break our dictator addiction -- just like its painful for the junkie to go cold turkey, we may feel uncomfortable with newly democratic governments choosing to do things we don't like. But if we continue taking more hits of Mubarak's dictator drug, we will be doing our part to guarantee that much more painful overdose, because we will be further aligning ourselves with the regime the subjugated Egyptian populace so despises. And more generally, if we perpetuate this cycle of dictator addiction by continuing to so forcefully back all those other dictatorships around the globe, we will be helping guarantee other overdoses in the future.