Commentary Magazine


Topic: dictators

The Lost Art of Mocking Dictators

As Seth noted earlier this week, Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenberg Gate in which he declared, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan’s moral clarity chafed the State Department and stunned adversaries, but history demonstrates its effect.

Moral clarity was not his only weapon, however. Reagan, with his typical good nature and humor, would also gently mock America’s enemies. He had some fun at the expense of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and at the hardships of Soviet life. He made fun of the lack of free speech in the Soviet Union. A few years back, Free Republic compiled a non-exhaustive list. Reagan’s jokes weren’t just a warm up act; his gentle ridicule highlighted the illegitimacy of autocratic regimes and reinforced fissures between society and its oppressors.

Alas, amidst all the discussion today of sophisticated diplomacy, the reset of relations, and respect for regimes like Iran’s, and also against the cultural relativism and self-flagellation in which so many journalists and diplomats engage, American officials have lost the will and ability to mock our adversaries. It really is a shame, because—be they in Pyongyang, Tehran, Moscow, or Caracas, there really are some world leaders deserving biting ridicule.

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As Seth noted earlier this week, Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenberg Gate in which he declared, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan’s moral clarity chafed the State Department and stunned adversaries, but history demonstrates its effect.

Moral clarity was not his only weapon, however. Reagan, with his typical good nature and humor, would also gently mock America’s enemies. He had some fun at the expense of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and at the hardships of Soviet life. He made fun of the lack of free speech in the Soviet Union. A few years back, Free Republic compiled a non-exhaustive list. Reagan’s jokes weren’t just a warm up act; his gentle ridicule highlighted the illegitimacy of autocratic regimes and reinforced fissures between society and its oppressors.

Alas, amidst all the discussion today of sophisticated diplomacy, the reset of relations, and respect for regimes like Iran’s, and also against the cultural relativism and self-flagellation in which so many journalists and diplomats engage, American officials have lost the will and ability to mock our adversaries. It really is a shame, because—be they in Pyongyang, Tehran, Moscow, or Caracas, there really are some world leaders deserving biting ridicule.

Many of the jokes Iranians tell about their leaders—including some I heard recently in Bahrain—frankly contradict President Ahmadinejad’s insistence that there is no homosexuality in the Islamic Republic. Many also make fun of the crass stupidity of Hezbollah. While no statesman would ever get up and tell these, there are others out there:

One involves a French doctor who brags that French medicine is so advanced that he can conduct a kidney transplant and have the patient out looking for work in six weeks. A German doctor hears that and says, “That’s nothing.” We can do a lung transplant and the patient will be looking for work in four weeks. A Russian doctor dismisses them by claiming, “We can do a heart transplant and the recipient will be looking for a job in two weeks.” The Iranian doctor hears all this and suggests, “That’s nothing: We took a man with no brain, made him the president, and now 20 million Iranians are looking for work!”

The Iranian regime’s nuclear program is serious business as is Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s tactical nuclear weaponry and the assistance he offers to all the world’s tin pot dictators. But, even as diplomats sit down across conference tables to try to resolve bilateral problems, there is no reason why American officials shouldn’t treat these regimes with the irreverence they deserve. Their citizens—not yet free to express their true opinions—will thank us later.

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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.

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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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