Dictator Schmictator, what’s all the fuss?
Following up on last week’s post, a few observations on dictators. The “common knowledge” in the west is that they are always bad, with comparisons to Hitler usually cited to illustrate the point. So of course if some foreign leader is labelled a dictator by the west, people immediately assume the worst. And not only do they assume that dictatorships are bad, they also assume that the people living under them automatically oppose them and want to see them overthrown. As part of this assumption, most people seem to think that the only way to get rid of a dictatorship is through force, I mean, no dictator would voluntarily relinquish power, would they? Lastly, it’s commonly assumed, and frequently stated, that the USA opposes dictatorships on general principles and promotes freedom, democracy, and self-determination around the world.
The reality is little more complicated. OK, it’s a lot more complicated. First let’s look at the idea that dictators are almost universally despised by their subjects. This usually includes the codicil that since dictators don’t hold elections, they don’t need to worry about their popularity. To start with, some of history’s most famous and admired people, especially in their own lands, have been dictators. Julius Caesar, the original dictator so to speak, was wildly popular. Napoleon’s grave is still one of Frances most revered sites. Hitler and Mussolini were both swept into power by popular revolt, Hitler in fact had something like 85% of the vote in the election that put him in power, and both to this day have their supporters. And for our American readers, a certain President Lincoln assumed blatantly unconstitutional powers in his efforts to reconquer the Confederacy. Lincoln was certainly a dictator by some definitions (and in many people’s minds at the time,) yet he is one of America’s most revered national figures.
Then of course the idea that dictators don’t have to worry about elections or popularity. In this sense, the common knowledge is completely ass backwards. It’s the people who are elected who don’t need to worry about popularity. A dictator on the other hand has to worry about their popularity every single day, because if they become too unpopular, bad things can happen. And while the leaders of any nation to one extent or another have to be concerned with assassins, the problem is particularly acute for dictators. The Sword of Damocles hasn’t endured in popular culture for nearly 2000 years for no reason.
As for the idea that dictatorships are always bad and that force is the only way to deal with them, this doesn’t hold up well when compared with the historical record. In fact let’s review, in 1960 or so most of the world’s nations with a few exceptions, were dictatorships. Mostly right wing dictatorships. Salazar in Portugal. Franco in Spain. South Korea was a military dictatorship. And virtually all of Latin America and Africa, as well as Indonesia and other Asian countries. Not to mention Eastern Europe, virtually all dictatorships. Yes, during the Cold War dictatorship was the norm, almost always propped up by weapons from the USA or Russia. And yet somehow virtually all of these nations have some semblance of a modern secular parliamentary government now. Even more astounding, most of these nations made the transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy with little or no violence. And very very few of them were “liberated” by foreign armies. Actually, it’s not astounding at all, what is astounding that people continue to make the claim that armed revolution and/or external intervention is the preferred or only solution to the “problem” of dictatorships. The historical record clearly shows otherwise.
Lastly we come to the idea that the USA is a force for democracy and self-determination in the world, part and parcel of the idea that we are occupying Iraq and Afghanistan out of some principled opposition to dictatorships and tyranny. This one is so contraindicated by the evidence that it’s a little hard to even know where to start. So let’s start with 1953, when the CIA overthrew the popularly elected government of Iran and put the Shah in power, where he ruled as a dictator for 26 years. In 1973 we have the USA supporting a military dictatorship that seized power in Chile. And there’s the little problem of the USA’s support for mass murderous dictatorships by any standard in Indonesia and Guatemala. And today Egypt and Saudia Arabia, two dictatorships by any definition of the word are significant recipients of US aid. I could go on, the list of brutal dictatorships the USA has tacitly or actively supported is so extensive that it’s a wonder anyone buys the idea that the USA is some supporter of worldwide democracy.
Well, outside the USA it’s probably not particularly widely believed at all. Especially people who have lost family and friends to our efforts to “spread democracy” at the point of a cruise missile. In any event, that’s not the point of this post, though I will be getting back to America’s flying death squads soon. The points were, well, as stated above. In a future post I’ll discuss Lincoln and his seizing of dictatorial powers as well as some of my favourite dictators. Lot’s of fun to be had here.
(The above image of Hitler and Mussolini is public domain under US copyright law, at least I hope so. At the very least it is an historically important image, it’s not being used for profit, and I’m claiming it as Fair Use under US copyright law. Yada yada yada (Which is in the OED by the way.))