June 24, 2011

Choosing peacemakers over war-mongers

The other day, I heard a random rumor that Bahrain was working some initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (remember those days?). Whether the rumor is true or not, and setting aside the recent concerns about democracy and human rights issues, it didn't shock me -- and it highlights a useful dividing line between productive governments and destructive regimes. Certainly, there are democracies and "good" autocracies that also go to war to save popular standing, but very few "bad" dictatorships have ever made peace in order to quell a popular revolt.

When Richard Nixon was besieged by Watergate at home, he accelerated his efforts -- and Henry Kissinger's -- to end hostilities in the Middle East, setting the stage for the subsequent Camp David talks. When Ehud Olmert was being accused of corruption, he recommitted himself to negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas. For all the concerns we may have about the circumstances, these actions reflect a healthy society, where a leader can assume that promoting international reconciliation wins domestic support (or at least distracts from personal troubles). 

Countries whose leaders have no respect for the governed adopt wholesale repression against their own people and have no hesitation to pick fights and project external enemies as the real villains. In the case of Syria, President Bashar Assad has fanned tensions with Israel and with Turkey even as his regime faces a massive popular uprising. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to widespread protests against his dubious re-election by turning up his defiance of the international community. When there is no proactive program for growth and innovation, the preferred option seems to be polarization and fear. 

Even as we advocate for rule of law and civil liberties around the world, it is worth bearing in mind that some governments are at least leaning in our direction, while others have no intention and make no pretense of ever being true to their citizens or forthright with the world.

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