Friday, October 30, 2009

Unforeseen Consequences: Western Good Intentions Plus Repressive Dictators Equals Mass Suffering

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By Barry Rubin

When intellectuals and officials in democratic countries deal with ruthless dictatorships not only do they often get fooled but their well-intentioned actions have effects they never could have envisioned. Consider the following story.

It’s the summer of 1921, the Bolsheviks have seized power in Russia but there is also a civil war and due both to years of warfare and Communist policies people are starving. Vladimir Lenin, the revolution’s leader, has sworn that there will be no organization permitted to exist in the country outside the Communist party’s and Bolshevik regime’s control. But the situation is desperate.

And so Lenin accepted the writer Maxim Gorky’s proposal to establish a famine relief committee consisting of respected intellectuals, independent humanitarian figures, liberals, and non-Communist socialists. There were Bolshevik members on the committee, too, including its chair, the leading Communist Lev Kamenev.

The commission was established and members contacted their friends abroad. And so, out of humanitarian intentions, Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration, wrote Gorky expressing willingness, even eagerness, to save Russians from starvation.

In exchange for being allowed to operate freely (and Soviet release of imprisoned American citizens), Hoover promised his group would feed people “without regard to race, creed, or social status.” Rather “progressive” stuff for 1921, especially coming from a conservative Republican.

So what happened? Well, Americans gave their money and grain to save millions of Russians. But Lenin and his colleagues now saw that the committee had done its work and was no longer needed.

Thus, when the next meeting was scheduled, Kamenev and all the Communist members didn’t show up. As the other members waited, secret police occupied the room. Five names were called out—a few needed experts and respected revolutionaries of the past—and then everyone else was arrested. They were thrown in the dreaded Lubyanka prison. Gradually, the minor members were released; the major ones were charged with treason and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Gorky, outraged to find himself manipulated into being a Judas Goat, complained bitterly and managed to have the sentences commuted mainly to exile. If not for Gorky's special relationship with Lenin, his courage, and a little luck, the non-Communist leaders of the committee would have been mowed down even as the food they had helped bring was saving the country's people and the Bolshevik regime itself.

But the last even partly independent group in the USSR had been destroyed and real civil society would not reappear for almost 70 years.

Indeed, less than a decade later, the Soviet leadership would seize all the peasants’ lands and trigger yet another famine. And during the Second World War the Soviet leadership would set up another such group to win foreign support, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, albeit with no real autonomy. Secure that he would enjoy U.S. support and full aid, later in the war Joseph Stalin dissolved this group and arranged a mafia-style hit (he was run over by a car in an apparent accident) for the committee’s leader.

Today, a wide variety of dictatorships continue with such policies. And the good intentions of Westerners, their humanitarian impulses, and their gullibility continue to be manipulated. Governments like Bolivia, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and to a lesser extent countries like China, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, along with others, repeat these kinds of games with great success.

But when the cameras turn off, the congressional delegations leave, and the concessions are digested, the secret police close in to kill and torture, secure in the knowledge that the West won’t do anything about it. Indeed, as we have seen recently in Iran, it doesn’t even matter if the cameras are still filming when they crush the demonstrations.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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