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The Dictators We Forgot

In the face of the Middle East’s revolutions, it’s easy to believe that the world’s dictators are comprised of autocrats we worked with (Mubarak), dictators we were trying to work with (Qaddafi), and dangerous regimes that won’t play ball (Iran). If only. The biggest category of all is the dictators we forgot.

Sudan has been in the news recently, where the bargain is clear: independence for southern Sudan, respectability for Khartoum. There is a cold-hearted logic inherent in working in Khartoum, which certainly had the power to disrupt the recent referendum on southern independence and (mostly) chose not to use it. But as Ambassador Richard Williamson recently emphasized at the Heritage Foundation, the slaughter in Darfur has not stopped. On the contrary: it has accelerated. In retrospect, the clownish Scott Gration had a strategy, and it worked: make the world forget about Darfur so it could focus on “winning” in southern Sudan. But the fact remains: a regime that could kill in Darfur is a regime that no one can trust, and should never be part of that fantasy known as the “international community.” And yet that is the prize we are giving it.

The list is endless. We’re wracked with guilt (or not) about the U.S.’s alliance with Mubarak. But who remembers Mugabe, a far worse villain? I agree that Qaddafi was almost uniquely oppressive ; Michael Totten, who has had plenty of opportunities to compare dictatorships, found Libya remarkably tyrannical. But Mubarak was no worse than a lot of sub-Saharan Africa’s dictators: Cameroon’s Paul Biya, for example, who has been in office since 1982 and whose regime features just as much thuggery, corruption, and violence as Mubarak’s did.

Mubarak was certainly no worse than Castro, yet the fact that El Presidente has run an island prison for over 50 years hasn’t stopped the Obama administration from trying to sidle up to him. On the lighter side, there’s Vogue magazine, which, as Alana noted recently, chose this month to run a glowing portrait of Asam al-Assad, the wife of Syria’s dictator. She claims that her mission is to promote “empowerment in civil society.” She’s obviously not very good at her job: Freedom House bluntly notes that, in Syria, “Freedom of expression is heavily restricted.” Of course, that has not stopped this administration from announcing that the U.S. is going to send an ambassador to Syria. The only difference between Mubarak and Assad is that the latter is even better at oppression.

I hope it’s obvious here that my point is not to apologize for Mubarak. It’s to say that the extent to which we are morally agonized about dictatorial rule is strongly shaped — too strongly shaped, in my view — by the extent to which we believe we were involved in enabling it, or to the extent it openly threatens us. If we were serious about human rights, we would be at least as exercised about dictatorships where we have nothing much at stake — and whom we could therefore oppose diplomatically free of cost — as we are about the ones where we do have interests to protect.

Instead, what we have are long periods of almost complete unconcern — during which lots of people who claim to be serving light and truth spend their days cashing the checks — punctuated by moments of moral panic when we realize whom we’re working with. Perhaps that just reflects the fact that, most of the time, foreign affairs don’t register on the public’s radar. But it’s shameful nonetheless.