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Kim Jong Il dies and it’s starting to look alot like Christmas…

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2011 has been a very hard year for tin-pot dictators. The roll call of dishonor continues to grow:

  1. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia)  – in exile;
  2. Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) – under arrest;
  3. Muammar Qaddafi (Libya) – dead;
  4. Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen) – in exile;
  5. Kim Jong Il (North Korea) – dead.

There is reason to hope that another tyrant will enter the dustbin of history before the end of the year.

The bloody-handed regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria is also on the ropes, despite the repeated and unjustifiable use of deadly force on unarmed protesters. Government forces have tortured and killed hundreds of people, and yet the protests continue to grow. Assad’s tenuous grip on power was dealt heavy blows from overseas as well – Syria was expelled from the Arab League and Syrian assets have been frozen along with the economic embargo the United States has recently tightened.

More damaging from the Syrian point of view has been Turkey’s strong reaction against the Assad regime. The Erdogan government has not only strongly condemned the violence, but has also intervened economically and threatened to intervene militarily. Both threats are of the first importance to the Syrians, especially as the Turkish military is far stronger than the Syrian and a threat of intervention is very credible.

It is too early to say what will happen in either Syria or North Korea, though the writing on the wall in Damascus seems clear enough. Assad will have to go into exile and join the other fugitive dictators in Riyadh. In North Korea, the situation seems more stable if only because the North Korean military exerts a degree of control over the population that is unrivaled since antiquity. No society was more thoroughly militarized and no group of helots was ever more abject than the North Koreans since the time of Sparta. It is highly improbable that any sort of popular movement for change can arise spontaneously in that country so long as China stands by the regime.

Even so, there is an opportunity here. The new government will most likely be headed by Kim Jong Eun, the dearly deceased Great Leader’s third son. Whether the 29-year old successor will be anything more than a cat’s paw for the generals remains to be seen, but the fact that there is new leadership may open a window to renew the 6 party talks, so long suspended. North Korea, already an anachronism, every day looks more and more like a fossil.

Another – and overdue – victim of 2011 is the “Bush doctrine”. For those of you who turned off the television and stopped reading the papers after February 2001, the “Bush doctrine” was the neo-con idea of spreading democracy through the overthrow of dictatorial regimes, specifically those in oil-producing lands that threatened Israel. It was given official sanction by the Bush Administration as an ideological fig-leaf for the Second Gulf War, gaining prominence with embarrassing rapidity as the evidence for Saddam’s WMD’s disappeared. Just like St. Nic, the neo-cons had their list and were checking it twice: after Iraq was “democratized”, it was going to be Iran’s turn, then Syria and maybe North Korea too.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Certainly, the overthrow of dictatorial regimes and the spread of democracy and liberalism are all laudable goals, and perfectly in keeping with the best traditions of US foreign policy. Using B-52’s and the 1st Armored Division to do it, though, smacks more of Mao (“power proceeds from the barrel of a gun”)(1) than of Jefferson (“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”) (2). President Bush nevertheless managed to committed not one, but two, of the classic blunders (3): never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never ever send ground troops to Afghanistan (the graveyard of empires).

The contrast between the discredited, even stillborn, policy of the Bush Administration and the results obtained by the Obama Administration at far more modest cost in Libya is clear enough. What is even more important to note is the success of truly popular movements in the absence of any foreign intervention at all. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and soon Syria will demonstrate the supremacy of Jefferson’s doctrine. It now behooves the United States to restate its foreign policy in Jeffersonian terms – we will support and have friendly relations with any government that exists through the consent of the governed.

For the rest of the dictators, it’s two minutes to midnight. Don’t expect a happy new year in 2012.

(1) Mao Zedong, “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (The Little Red Book)” (1964);
(2) Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence” (1776);
(3) Wallace Shawn as Vizzini, “The Princess Bride” (1987). Also attributed to Douglas MacArthur

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John Adams

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