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Keep an Open Eye on Dictators

It occurred to me, re-reading the item I penned yesterday on Western elites who kowtow to dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong, that the examples I chose were primarily from the left. That is not to suggest the right should get off the hook. During the years, plenty of right-wingers have fallen prey to the charms of “friendly” dictators such as Chiang Kai-shek, Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, P.W. Botha, the Saudi royals, and Hosni Mubarak. (Botha admittedly, was elected, but by an electorate comprising only a small minority of the South African population.) Along the way these conservatives have made the same kind of unconvincing attempts to explain away their heroes’ human rights abuses as liberals routinely make for left-wing dictators. Even the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic had a few lick-spittles in a small corner of the American right.

Of course, some dictators are hard to categorize ideologically: Assad is the head of the socialist and secular Baath Party, but also the scion of an Alawite family sect closely aligned with Iran’s theological state. And some conservatives have courted left-wing dictators as much as right-wing ones–one thinks of Nixon and Kissinger clinking glasses with Mao and Brezhnev.

Mercifully, such excuse-making for dictators is heard less-often on the right since Ronald Reagan ended his support for the pro-American dictators in the Philippines and South Korea, thus committing America to a policy of democracy promotion that has been championed, however inconsistently, by his successors. But as the Arab Spring has spread, there have been some attempts, primarily on the right, to paint in overly rosy hues the deposed or soon-to-be-deposed dictators.

There are certainly legitimate debates to be had about the wisdom and pace of political change in various countries. To recognize the brutality of a regime is not necessarily to support its immediate overthrow or to be blind to the possibility that a lesser evil could be replaced by a greater one. But at the very least, we should be clear-eyed about the nature of the regimes we deal with and not ascribe imaginary virtues to the brutal men who rule countries by terror and force.


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