Nationalism, professionalism, Western military contacts and developmental insight do not prevent corruption in the Tunisian and Egyptian armed forces, but they do help explain why these organizations refused to fire on mass demonstrations by their own people.
In November 1979, Commentary Magazine published Jeane Kirkpatrick's controversial essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards." Kirkpatrick (who later served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) contrasted autocracies (e.g., shah of Iran) with totalitarian regimes (e.g., Fidel Castro).
Totalitarians sought to destroy social institutions and replace them with ideological instruments; autocrats might seek to control traditional institutions but not destroy them. Kirkpatrick wrote in a Cold War context, where the Soviet Union was poised to replace a U.S.-friendly autocrat with a communist. That threat no longer exists, but in the Middle East, militant Islamists attempt to exploit institutional vacuums.
Kirkpatrick's essay still sparks debate. One of her core arguments, however, is pertinent to 2011's dramatic rebellions. People shape events, not vague historical forces or deterministic theories, and people who seek to successfully transition their society from a dictatorship to a democracy need reliable institutions that promote consensus, compromise and the pursuit of power by legal means.
So far, the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have fulfilled that role, by supporting negotiations and a stable transition process leading to national elections. Gadhafi's cult of megalomaniacal personality regime has nothing immediately comparable.
With Egyptian, Tunisian and NATO assistance, defecting Libyan military commanders and their units may provide the skeleton of a stabilizing institution, especially if coast and desert tribal leaders will support it. Hope that NATO spies and special forces in contact with the rebels are forwarding this goal.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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