Presidents for Life

Presidents for Life (PFL) are in the news these days, and last week it was Hosni Mubarak’s turn. Let’s see, we have had out share of the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega and others, all lifers, until destiny caught up with them.

What makes these creatures? Western powers have to take some (dis)credit here. According to our rational thinking, it is better to have one’s interests protected overseas by one guy in power for a long time rather than by many people in power for short periods. Just drown the lone guy in money and power and he will guard the house better than those fledgling multi•party democracies that are constantly subject to the winds of change. For how inconvenient would it be if a democratically elected “people’s power” does not want to be subject to foreign exploitation or if it does not wish to export oil and minerals, or buy our goods to keep the western industrial machine chugging along? No, let’s keep that old PFL for as long as we can until local and global opinion swings so badly against him that he has to be eased into retirement in some desert palace (if he has been a good toady) or hung from the end of a noose (if he has been bad) Then let’s shrug and hope that the next guy in the seat can slowly amass power around him quickly and declare himself the new president for life. And while he’s at it, let’s give him some incentives to get there. I get the formula and the logic now.

And what of these guys’ track records? Their claim to fame is for being the best at providing the stability needed to foster a long period of sustained growth for their young nations. History has proved the opposite. Other than for a few examples to the contrary, the majority of PFLs have taken their countries to the dogs while amassing unimaginable personal wealth. And they often leave power vacuums in their wake for there are no good people left to take over—the good ones have either fled, immigrated, or been killed.

Can we enhance our reputations by helping these guys? On the one hand we say that we are trying to democratize “backward” nations, on the other hand we like keeping these despots in power just in case things get out of control. You can’t play both sides, guys. If you go for universal democracy then you’ve got to take what comes: let people in other lands choose to support you based on your values and track record for fair dealing, or boot you out for your duplicity.

I feel for the people in these nations. They bear unnecessary scars and they have to struggle for a basic right that we in the west take for granted. Only the top percentile of their citizenry have the ability, both financial and academic, to make it to the developed west on their own terms as immigrants, expatriates or investors. The rest have to search for freedom on home turf—they have no other choice. The evidence in the Middle East over the last few weeks has shown that the people are indeed keen, although not all may be ready.

I wonder if the UN could monitor the progress of the remaining PFL’s in the world and sound an alarm bell when each reaches his pinnacle effectiveness? When the bell tolls (and there might be quite a bit of overdue tolling to catch up on initially), Mr. PFL should hand over power to a groomed successor, or to the people if they are ready, erect a statue or name an airport in his name, then ride off into the sunset to a stable desert oasis and live happily ever after for having served western interests well. And if he does not comply or gets restless in retirement, well there are always alligators to be fed in places like Florida, if his own people do not ingloriously devour him, that is.

As for democracy, we could start with education in these evolving nations; teach them, open their eyes to the world and to the responsibilities of belonging to a democracy (for there are responsibilities, lest we forget) and let them decide. Democracy cannot be force•fed, it’s a journey. Let’s just give them the tools and then get out of the way, and eventually, “President for Life” may become an anachronism.