History itself demands action: Syria’s autocratic challenge to the West

Will the West defend freedom at a potential turning point in global history, or will it cede this and future battles to autocratic forces?

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Friendly autocrats: Russia's Medvedev with Assad
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Lawrence J. Haas
On 8 March 2012 13:25

While the United States and its allies dither over whether to materially support the Syrian opposition and, if so, how, Western leaders should recognize that the bloody conflict raises a larger question:

Will the West defend freedom at a potential turning point in global history, or will it cede this and future battles to autocratic forces?

Consider:

As Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter continues, leaving over 7,500 dead, cities reduced to rubble, and Syrians dreading what may come next, Damascus is receiving arms and other support from Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran – a trio of autocratic regimes with visions of governance that differ greatly from U.S.-led freedom and democracy.

At home, the autocrats are trying to provide more prosperity for their people without giving them the political freedom to choose their leaders – and possibly replace the current ones. Consequently, they don’t want another autocrat (particularly an ally) to fall and, worse, be replaced by a freer, more democratic government that the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian people might want to replicate.

Washington, on the other hand, would benefit greatly from al-Assad’s demise. For starters, it would deprive Tehran of its key regional ally, which would further isolate the regime, weaken its ability to carry out terrorist operations, and make it harder for it to achieve its hegemonic ambitions.

Al-Assad’s demise also would create an opportunity for an organized opposition to seed freedom and democracy in another place in a region that, through the Arab Spring, is starting to taste the first fruits. All else being equal, the more that freedom and democracy comes to the Greater Middle East, the fewer threats that the region would present to Western interests – and the more potential it would offer for Western investment from which both the region and the West would benefit.

The Syrian conflict – indeed, the Arab Spring from which it sprung – also comes at a key moment in global history. In recent years, the advance of freedom and democracy has stalled, with autocrats in Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere offering a governing model to challenge the U.S.-led system of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism that has served the world well for more than half a century.

As Freedom House reported about political rights and civil liberties earlier this year in Freedom in the World 2012, “slightly more countries registered declines than exhibited gains over the course of 2011. This marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements” – the longest period of retrenchment since the non-profit began publishing its annual survey in 1972.

History suggests that, after some period of retrenchment, freedom and democracy will resume their advance. That’s what has happened for the last two centuries, with what the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called “waves of democratization” that have been interrupted by temporary “reverse waves.”

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