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Too Many Excuses for Tyrants

(Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2020)

Despite all of this, [Robert D.] Kaplan’s analysis of the greater Middle East should not be ignored. His travels throughout this vast region across the decades give him insights into its diverse challenges that few Americans possess.”

Robert D. Kaplan is one of the most prominent pessimists in Western media of recent decades. President Bill Clinton saw his 1993 book Balkan Ghosts as a reason not to intervene in the Bosnian war during his first year in office (though Kaplan supported intervention). His 1994 Atlantic article, “The Coming Anarchy” (later expanded into a book) laid out a vision of an unstable 21st century, a rejoinder to the joyful prognostications of some observers of the age of globalization. As journalist David Plotz wrote in Slate in 2002, “Kaplan’s idea of foreign policy sometimes seems to be a shrug and an M-16.”

His underrated 2001 work Warrior Politics made the case for realism in foreign policy, shortly before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 shook the United States out of its post-Cold War complacency. It was a prescient statement of the need for Americans to confront the limits of their belief in universal human rights. Humane causes can be fought for, but only if those fighting for them realize they will only succeed in some places and at some times. A grand ideological vision is something to avoid.

Kaplan’s 2023 book, The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China, shows him crossing the greater Middle East. He speaks to figures in countries across the region, gauging their opinions of long-term trends. At the core of the book, however, is the author’s experience with Iraq, an experience that, while it is a useful warning about the folly of grand designs, also shows the danger of overcorrection, of being too willing to give autocrats the benefit of the doubt.


Kaplan details his visits to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s and the stifling cruelty of the totalitarian Baathist regime. This experience led him to disregard his realist inclinations toward geopolitical stability and back the 2003 overthrow of Saddam. What he, like many Iraq hawks, had not counted on was the crippling damage done to Iraq’s infrastructure by the Gulf War, damage made nearly impossible to repair by international sanctions imposed after the conflict. This would severely hamper the American-led coalition’s efforts to stabilize the country after ousting the regime.

With admirable candor, Kaplan confronts this disaster, a war he was one of many American journalists and intellectuals to promote. He writes of the clinical depression he suffered, and his later travels through Muslim countries, listening to “anger at the U.S. invasion of Iraq close-up.” He describes his determination to become more attuned to the concerns of peoples around the world, while also becoming more emotionally detached in his analysis of American foreign policy.

Kaplan makes much of the contrast between anarchy and tyranny, describing the violence that beset post-Saddam Iraq as even worse than that man’s cruel reign. He takes issue with those who see these two extremes as equally bad, quoting the medieval Persian polymath Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s saying, “a hundred years” is less harmful than “one year’s” anarchy. He, thus, is deeply critical of Western liberals who are keen to condemn Middle Eastern autocrats. Principles these liberals see as universal are not truly universally held, he reminds the reader, and it is naïve to think that what works in a West that values individual liberty and human rights will work everywhere.

But is the contrast always so extreme? Is no opposition to tyranny justified, even if it risks provoking anarchy? The United States was formed through rebellion against a distant government seen as tyrannical (though British rule in America was considerably less authoritarian than many regimes targeted by violent revolutions since). There was never any guarantee that the young republic would not devolve into anarchy (as some opponents of the American Revolution feared), rather than evolve into a prosperous liberal democracy and history’s farthest-reaching global power. While there are many factors influencing a country’s trajectory—political, geopolitical, geographic, economic, social, cultural, religious, ethnic—if rebellion against a ruler can produce a free and prosperous nation in some cases, there is reason to believe the same can happen in others. Kaplan runs the risk of thinking that successful liberative rebellions are limited to certain peoples and places.


Kaplan speaks highly of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s ouster of Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government after only one year in office, which he calls a period of “extreme disorder.” What he does not mention is the role of the United States in allowing Sisi to seize power. As former Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid details in his 2022 book, The Problem of Democracy, the United States had warned in advance that a coup would take place. It could have warned the Egyptian military not to overthrow their elected government, but it passed up the opportunity.

It is not at all clear that a coup d’état was necessary to remove President Mohammed Morsi and the Brotherhood from power. As Fareed Zakaria noted on his CNN show, another election was scheduled to be held in Egypt. There was a strong possibility that the Brotherhood would lose. Even if the Brotherhood’s rule was intolerably anarchic—a debatable proposition—the Egyptian people would have had the opportunity to change their government democratically, had the army not stepped in and denied them that chance.

More than a decade after the coup, Egypt’s stability is no sure thing. Its national debt has soared, thanks in large part to President Sisi’s lavish spending on building projects like a new administrative capital. Cairo recently accepted an $8 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund to avert disaster. It is also a mistake to assume President Sisi is a reliable ally for Washington. Over the last decade, despite receiving more than $1 billion a year in American aid, Egypt has purchased an ever-growing portion of its military equipment from Russia.

A successful Brotherhood government would have provided a stark alternative to Islamists who favored violence against the United States and Israel. It would have made clear to Western skeptics that Arab societies could govern themselves without the world coming to an end. Alternatively, a democratic defeat of the Brotherhood would have shown that political groups whose ideologies make the West nervous need not be taken down violently. Sadly, the United States did not let the Egyptian people have that chance.


Kaplan calls Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1969-2011, a “pro-Western tyrant” in his later years, one who brutally kept migrants from going through Libya into Europe. He finds it preposterous that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) overthrew him in 2011 to halt his slaughter of Libyans who had risen up against his brutal dictatorship. He condemns the West for giving into liberal urges.

Leaving aside the question of whether the West should want harsh dictators doing their dirty work, Kaplan assumes Libya’s civil war—which did not begin until 2014—is a direct result of Qaddafi’s ouster. He ignores the role of autocratic regimes—Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates—and a cynical France in backing Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his attempt to destroy Libya’s elected government. Also, Qaddafi did not always serve the West well by keeping refugees under this thumb. He had a history of extorting concessions from European governments in exchange for keeping Africans away from their shores.

For all the damage Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done to his country’s democracy, he has played an important role in preserving Libya’s fragile democracy against assaults by Haftar and his allies. Turkish forces, especially their use of drones, kept Haftar’s army from conquering Tripoli. An illiberal democracy like President Erdogan’s Turkey can sometimes be a greater defender of freedom than outright dictatorships who promise to keep illiberal forces down through any means necessary.

The conflicts Libya has experienced since Qaddafi’s overthrow and killing in 2011 have also not resulted in the vast refugee flows Europe has experienced since then. As noted in a paper by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, in 2015—the year of the largest refugee spike—Eritrea was the number one source of migrants going through Libya, a result of another authoritarian government and its brutal treatment of its people. The vast majority of refugees that year reached Europe through Turkey, not North Africa, and their primary place of origin by far was Syria.


Kaplan praises President Barack Obama for not intervening in Syria in 2013, despite dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, which killed more than 1,400 of them. But Kaplan downplays or ignores what followed: Two brutal forces benefited from the power vacuum of the ideologically diverse opposition to Assad being undermined via lack of American support.

The first was the Islamic State, who burst onto the scene with shocking violence in 2014, conquering large swaths of Iraq and Syria. As noted by Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Islamic State achieved this position in part due to support from Assad, who preferred to devote most of his efforts to weakening the more decent forces opposing his rule, and thus claim falsely that he was the only man keeping the jihadists at bay. While President Obama wisely opted for military force to beat back the Islamic State, by that time the space for a non-jihadist alternative to Assad has shrunk considerably.

The second was Russia. After President Obama accepted President Vladimir Putin’s offer of a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria—which did not achieve its ostensible goal, as Assad has repeatedly used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians since—Russian forces joined the fight in 2015. Russian warplanes have devastated civilians in regions of Syria controlled by opposition forces. Among other locations, they have deliberately attacked hospitals with no value as military targets.

With President Putin showing no signs of giving up on his dream of conquering Ukraine, the decision to give him an opening in Syria looks foolish. Whether President Obama’s backing down in Syria emboldened President Putin to begin seizing Ukrainian territory in 2014 is debatable. What is clear is that Russia’s strongman cannot be trusted as an agent of peace and stability, and the West should be wary in the extreme of giving him anything he might want.

Saudi Arabia

Kaplan has kind words for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, viewing him as a progressive reformer. He describes the increasing room for less conservative behavior among Saudis. While he notes the Crown Prince’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Kaplan has contempt for Western liberals whose outrage over human rights violations overwhelms other considerations about the Crown Prince and his country.

But while the Crown Prince may be a progressive force within his own country, his foreign policy has not increased the stability of the Middle East. As mentioned, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that has continually undermined the prospects for democracy in Libya during the last decade, backing Field Marshal Haftar. A prince determined to drag his country into the modern era can also be one who sets back another country’s prospects for peace and stability.

The rapid modernization the Crown Prince is bringing to his country is similar to what the last Shah of Iran brought to his. Iran developed economically and became more secular in the 1960s and 1970s, in combination with a brutal autocracy that suppressed dissent and tortured critics. All this empowered the Ayatollah Khomeini and his reactionary followers, who latched onto the Shah’s unpopularity to seize power and turn Iran into a theocracy. Will the Crown Prince suffer the Shah’s fate?


The Loom of Time was published before October 7, 2023. Hamas’ massacre of more than one thousand Israelis that day certainly complicates arguments for a firm embrace of Middle Eastern democracy by the United States. There is always a risk of empowering forces who would try to eradicate the Jewish state if they had the opportunity. It also provides reasons to be somewhat less critical of the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen. For all the death and destruction of that conflict, the fact that Saudi Arabia and its allies were fighting a dangerous force backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran means there are at least some positive aspects to their intervention.

This does not mean, however, that democracy should be an afterthought in American policy toward the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. For Israel to have the security it deserves, Palestinians need more chances to govern themselves, more chances for alternatives to the nihilists of Hamas to emerge. Creating a Palestinian state is the most likely way to ensure Hamas never returns to power and Iran never gains another foothold in Gaza.


For all his contempt for Western cosmopolitan elites, Kaplan’s affinity for strongmen over the illiberal masses gives him something in common with the progressives he despises. His distrust of the Egyptians who elected President Morsi, for example, parallels the Americans and Britons who view former President Donald Trump’s supporters and Brexiteers as bumpkins ignorant of their own best interest. He shares highly educated progressives’ confidence that ordinary people are not qualified to make important political decisions. Both are too inclined to tell people, in essence, “I know what is good for you. Accept your lot, peasants.”

Despite all of this, Kaplan’s analysis of the greater Middle East should not be ignored. His travels throughout this vast region across the decades give him insights into its diverse challenges that few Americans possess. Order is always a legitimate concern for anyone who cares about human flourishing. Kaplan deserves to be listened to—and so do the aspiring democrats of the Middle East, men and women who are fed up with the oppressive behaviors of their governments and are prepared to fight to defend their dignity, even at the cost of temporary anarchy.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is the international relations editor at Merion West, and has written for the Center for Maritime Strategy, Divergent Options, the Liberal Patriot, and Wisdom of Crowds, among other outlets.

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