Tuesday, March 25, 2003

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When dictators exploit the war

Mickey Kaus correctly notes that a lot of news stories will fade away quicker than they should as war news buries them. However, there's another effect that's worth mentioning -- how foreign leaders will exploit the current situation to take actions that would otherwise capture media attention. This is a more sinister problem than document dumps, because of the effect on human rights.

Consider: if you were a dictator, and the United States was preoccupied with prosecuting a war in a distant land, wouldn't you exploit the situation by cracking down on dissent? Even if such activities garner press attention, the half-life of the story is shorter, and an American response is less likely because of the inability to get the foreign policy principals to focus on anything other than the war.

Unfortunately, dictators in four continents have recognized this window of opportunity:

Cuban authorities arrested a leading independent journalist and a democracy activist, and then proceeded to round up an additional 65 dissidents, according to the Washington Post .

In response to an opposition strike, Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe has arrested more than 400 followers of the Movement for Democratic Change, according to the BBC.

In Uzbekistan, the government of Islam Karimov has initiated a crackdown of independent media, beating and torturing several independent journalists.

Belarus and Myanmar are also exploiting the situation.

These crackdowns are part of the costs of war [C'mon, how do you know that these actions wouldn't have taken place anyway?--ed. They very well might have, but the various governments would have had to respond to press inquiries and U.S. policy responses. If nothing else, the war has lowered the costs for them to act]. Hopefully they will be reversed or lessened when Operation Iraqi Freedom winds down.

I'm sure the Oxford Democracy Forum will be on the case.

UPDATE: Encouraged by the Kausfiles link, I looked to see if other dictators are exploiting the current situation. Fortunately, there are not a lot of out-and-out dictators in the world anymore, and I couldn't find any more cases to cite. Here's one story about Yemeni government efforts to harass opposition leaders, but calling this a "crackdown" seems excessive.

Intriguingly, there is a more positive trend to report -- the moderation of civil conflicts. In Nepal, Nigeria, and Congo have all seen reductions in civil strife over the last week (Colombia is an exception). This is probably unrelated to the war, but nevertheless worthy of note.

Finally, while our gaze is away from Iraq, Eurasianet has an incisive analysis of the domestic political landscape in Iran following February parliamentary elections. Intriguingly, most of Iran's political cliques tacitly support the invasion of Iraq, albeit for different reasons.

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