December 15, 2003 | Wall Street Journal

One Down, Dozens More to Go

We got Saddam Hussein. Now, what about all the other dictators?

That long list of surviving despots makes up the true axis of evil, which is the source of the worst troubles of the modern world, according to author and former U.S. ambassador Mark Palmer. Replacing every last one of them with democracy is not only desirable, says Mr. Palmer; it is doable.

Before anyone writes off such a claim as utopian raving, or U.S. unilateralism gone ballistic, let us all turn–please–to Mr. Palmer's “Breaking the Real Axis of Evil,” one of the best but least noticed books among all the tomes addressing the quest for peace in the post-Sept. 11 era.

A mix of broad argument and gritty guide, “Breaking the Real Axis of Evil” is basically an inspired field manual on the why and how of replacing tyranny with democracy–the sooner the better and, where possible, without violence. To come up with the names on his hit list, Mr. Palmer draws on the rating system of New York-based Freedom House, which has been tracking tyrants world-wide for decades. (Mr. Palmer is now a vice chairman of Freedom House.) Noting that a clear deadline and strategy would help end the era of despots altogether, Mr. Palmer somewhat arbitrarily picks the year 2025 for polishing off every last one and devotes the rest of his book to the program.

The ideas here are entirely in keeping with the democratic principles that President Bush has laid out these past two years as the basis of U.S. foreign policy. What's radical about Mr. Palmer's book is that he suggests scores of practical ways in which the U.S. and its democratic allies can live up to these principles, not only in Iraq but around the globe.
Mr. Palmer argues that replacing dictators with democracy is a matter not only of human rights and decency but of global security. Reeling off a list of the miseries that still plague much of mankind–“famine, refugees, poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, war, genocide, and terrorism”–he classifies them all as “toxic weeds that bloom in the deep shade of dictatorship.” He cites extensive evidence that free nations generally avoid the atrocities to which dictatorships are prone. “Even in its immature form,” he states, “democracy offers a better world than the tyranny it displaces.”

That is not always the view at the U.S. State Department, where custom and bureaucracy tend to favor the “stability” of established relations with dictators and to nurture the hope that “engagement” will moderate their behavior. Mr. Palmer believes, by contrast, that “softening repression does not eliminate its cause; eliminating the dictator is the only way to do that.” He goes on to make the case that, for people living under tyranny, signs of democratic solidarity from the outside, especially from the U.S., matter more than most Americans might imagine.

So what to do? To begin, he recommends that the State Department create a new slot of “Assistant Secretary for Ousting Dictators.” Maybe that sounds odd, but it makes a lot more sense than such State Department traditions as bowing low to the Saudis. Mr. Palmer is seeking levers to engineer a shift in the thinking, methods and reach of U.S. diplomacy. He proposes, reasonably enough–and the italics are his–that “dictatorship itself must be recognized as a crime against humanity.”

For pressuring tyrants from power, Mr. Palmer lays out a kit of practical tools–some as simple as “the uses of ridicule,” which, he notes, really bothers Fidel Castro. He recognizes up front that “a strong defense among the democracies is an absolute precondition for peace and for ousting dictators.” Early on, he quotes with approval Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute saying: “The best democracy program ever invented is the U.S. Army.”

Mr. Palmer offers case studies ranging from Chile to the Philippines and draws on his own experience as ambassador to Hungary during the final years of the Soviet empire. He focuses on ways to make contact with democrats inside tyrannies, support them and help them peacefully free themselves. With China, Mr. Palmer recommends tactics as simple as having the U.S. ambassador visiting Beijing parks to perform exercises favored by the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong. He suggests calling for an annual China Democracy Day, world-wide, which might summon a big display of support abroad and “help undermine the legitimacy of the communist dictatorship.”

He also includes brief profiles of the world's current dictators, calling them the “Forty-Five Least Wanted” (now down to 43, with Saddam Hussein captured and Liberia's Charles Taylor forced from office). In these sketches is plenty to ponder. When America earlier this year went seeking a final vote in the United Nations Security Council to oust Saddam, and ended up dickering with the likes of Cameroon, how many Americans knew that Cameroon itself, ruled for the past 21 years by President Paul Biya, is a dictatorship where state security forces routinely torture and murder dissidents?

Not that this book is perfect. Mr. Palmer's prose style is more utilitarian than lyric. And there are a few items I would quarrel with, such as his reverence for South Korea's former President Kim Dae Jung as an exemplary democrat–something belied by Mr. Kim's own “sunshine policy” sellout to North Korea, mistakenly pushing detente with a regime clearly beyond redemption.
But by and large, “Breaking the Real Axis of Evil” is an invaluable foreign-policy guide. It needs to become a well-thumbed manual on the desk of every diplomat and leader who claims to represent the Free World. An honest United Nations might even want to replace its politically correct lobby exhibits with a portrait gallery of Mr. Palmer's Least Wanted–and cross them off as they fall. That would be the real start of meeting all those grand U.N. Millennium Development Goals, not by holding endless conferences on ending poverty, hunger and war but by eliminating their root cause: dictatorship.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears in the Opinion Journal and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.


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