Last month, former American Task Force on Palestine director Ghaith al-Omari and freelance journalist Neri Zilber, both currently affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, published an important piece in Foreign Affairs examining what happens after the death of Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinian President Abbas recently turned 80 and is known to be an industrious smoker. His successor by law is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas official Aziz Duwaik. Duwaik is currently imprisoned in Israel, but even if he were free, there would be no chance of a parliamentary speaker from Hamas taking the reins of power in the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian parliament has not met in over seven years, and Abbas himself is now a decade into a four-year presidential term that began in 2005. Laws regulating transitions of political power are thus irrelevant: Abbas rules by presidential decree in the West Bank; Hamas rules by the gun in the Gaza Strip. No clear successor has come to the forefront, however, let alone one that has been officially designated by the party.
Across administrations, the State Department has preferred to work with autocrats simply because they believe that it is easier to deal with autocrats. When making peace, the logic goes, dictators can deliver, especially when the population has been poisoned by decades of incitement. Hence, while the first Palestinian “intifada” between 1987-1993 was largely a grassroots movement, first the George H.W. Bush administration and then the Clinton administration reached out to the more radical, exiled PLO leadership believing that it would be easier to make a deal with Yasir Arafat than with those Palestinians who had lived alongside Israelis, spoke Hebrew, and better understood Israel. Arafat liked having the trappings of office and power, without making either the compromises inherent in peace or preparing the Palestinian political and popular culture for the compromises of peace. In 2000, at the Camp David II summit, he rejected a peace deal to which his own negotiators had acquiesced and refused to make any counter offer. Under his leadership, Palestinian terrorism grew more frequent, Palestinians suffered greater deprivation against the backdrop of his and his Fatah cronies’ thievery, and the general situation worsened.
But it’s not just Arafat. Iraqi Kurdistan looked like an oasis of peace and stability a two decades ago. Successive administrations worked with Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani and sang his praises, at least publicly. Former government officials were willing to embrace the Kurdish leader in exchange for business opportunities or cash. But today, Barzani is in the 11th years of his eight-year presidency and, like so many dictators before him, has just this month decided the Kurdish people aren’t yet ready for elections. That’s all well and good for those who consider Barzani indispensable, but the flipside of the indispensability is the supposition or acknowledgment that no other potential leader exists. To accept that Kurdistan is not ready for elections is to recognize that chaos or a son with poor judgment and temperament might succeed Barzani.
The United States has also fallen into the dictator-chic trap with Bashar al-Assad. Who can forget that just eight years ago Nancy Pelosi dismissed White House and State Department requests to desist and insisted on breaking Assad’s isolation? Or that just six years ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was testifying to Assad’s reformism? While, all along journalists were playing up the fact that Assad was Western-educated? The Damascus spring is a distant memory; in hindsight, it looks almost as if Assad feigned reform in order to see what he was up against before targeting those who dared stick their necks out.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likewise became an indispensable man in whom the West put great faith to usher in real reform. What he did in reality was quite the opposite: He unraveled checks and balances and deconstructed a system that, while imperfect, had kept potential extremisms at bay for decades. In 2006, Ross Wilson, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, symbolized the U.S. embrace of strongman rule and disdain for democratic opposition when he dismissed Turkey’s secular opposition parties as little more than a “cacophony.”
The United States may be making the same mistake in Egypt. While I supported the coup that overthrow Mohamed Morsi who, as president, had tried to implement a one-man, one-vote, one-time system, there’s a danger in placing all hope in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi no matter how successful he will be in his quest to jumpstart a reformation. And while I’m willing to give Sisi benefit of the doubt, no diplomat, journalist, nor Sisi himself can truly gauge his popularity since the crackdown on opposition has muted criticism and silenced what could have been a useful pressure valve. If Sisi is the new Atatürk, American policymakers need to consider what happens in Egypt if a single bullet fells the leader, leaving no clear successor behind.
The list goes on. True believers in the Obama administration’s Iran strategy — reportedly Hillary Clinton aide Jake Sullivan, for example — see in Iran a Deng Xiaoping moment. They believe first that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a reformer and, second, working through him can marginalize hardliners. This is nonsense, of course, and misunderstands Rouhani and the Iranian system. Still, even if we were to accept it as true, it doesn’t address the concern about what happens if Rouhani dies or is removed from the scene. Both George W. Bush and especially Hillary Clinton likewise had great faith in Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bush saw a soul, and Clinton saw a partner for reset. Many Russians welcomed his strongman-style after the uncertainty if not chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years. Putin shows the old adage that it’s essential to be careful of what one wishes for. Putin has so eviscerated the system that there really will be no filling the vacuum once he dies without either continuing a paranoid, confrontational dictatorship under the likes of Dmitry Rogozin or by suffering a period of instability while Russia rebuilds.
The list is pretty long, but the lessons remain the same: Basing national security on individual rulers is at best a short-term solution with dire long-term consequences. It might be much harder to accomplish, but ultimately it should be an overwhelming national interest to encourage the creation of a system that can endure even when key figures die or move on. Leadership does not mean taking short-cuts, or sacrificing long-term security for ephemeral, short-term gain.