Obama’s Authoritarians

by Victor Davis Hanson
Mouthing Sixties-style anti-Western slogans is the way to win the president’s heart.

There were many paradoxes left after the protests of the 1960s. One of the worst was American elites’ hypocrisy toward authoritarianism abroad.

Most Americans granted that anti-Communist strongmen like Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and Anastasio Somoza stifled liberty and freedom. Yet they further agreed that during a lose-lose Cold War, in which our enemies the Soviet Union and Red China had collectively murdered perhaps 80 million of their own people, there were no good choices. Thus they were willing to go along with the American government’s support for right-wing thugs who were enlisted in the war against Communism, although the elites, especially in the academy, regularly castigated them.

Yet left-wing brutes — the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, the Eastern European puppet regimes, an array of monsters in Africa, and, later, the Ortega bunch and Hugo Chávez — were usually given a pass from commensurate scrutiny. The reasoning apparently was twofold. One, bloodthirsty liberationists gained exemption by claiming that their absolutism was in service to “equality” and “the people.” Their supposedly noble ends justified their bloody means.

Two, they were charmingly anti-American. Left-wing thugs found that their animus resonated with an affluent, postwar American Baby Boomer generation. The more leisured and comfortable American life became, the more Americans had the luxury of critiquing their own inherited privilege. Accordingly, the more left-wing authoritarians abroad dredged up all sorts of race, class, and gender transgressions of the United States, the more they were deemed authentic by our own elites, who shared their grievances against America.

Even the stereotypes followed the script: Right-wing dictators wore easily caricatured epaulettes, plenty of gold sashes, chests full of gaudy medals, and sunglasses. Left-wing dictators had cool facial hair, wore camouflage or Mao suits, and appeared to be men of the people. Castro may have killed more than did Pinochet, and he destroyed the economy of Cuba while Pinochet rescued that of Chile, but he made a far better dorm-room wall poster for upscale American students.

That dishonesty, unfortunately, remained with us, especially as the children of the 1960s aged and assumed the reins of American power. If an authoritarian mouthed egalitarian platitudes or even generic anti-American sloganeering, the new American establishment often accepted that buffoonery as conferring a sort of grass-roots legitimacy.

Note how Barack Obama — who came of age on the fumes of the 1960s — reacted to the Green protests in Iran during spring 2009. Obama had run for office on the stereotyped idea that a reactionary Bush administration had ignored the cries of Iranian “reformers” within the theocracy, imams who supposedly wanted a reset relationship with a long-awaited cosmopolitan like Obama.

In perfect Sixties fashion, Obama believed that his own against-the-grain personal narrative — mixed racial ancestry, exotic non-Western name, fashionably radical early CV, and boutique ankle-biting of his own country — would ensure that he, almost alone, could engineer a breakthrough with the anti-American Iranians. After all, they might have something in common, in their shared suspicions of a “you didn’t build that” capitalism, Western chauvinism, and the privileged race/class/gender assumptions of the American establishment. The fact that most of the Iranian theocrats were by definition illiberal, anti-democratic, religiously intolerant, and statist, and that they were often violent was ignored. They even dressed the anti-Western part as tie-less bureaucrats and mimicked the 1960s boilerplate American anti-establishment rhetoric.

No wonder, then, that Obama seemed startled when hundreds of thousands of democratic reformers destroyed his script by hitting the streets of Iran’s cities. Apparently their desire for constitutional government and a pro-Western tilt made them almost suspicious in Obama’s eyes. Maybe he felt their success would spoil his own supposedly singular ability to connect with the anti-American theocracy. Or perhaps their admiration for Western freedoms made them suspect neo-cons of a sort. In any case, the reformers got no support from the U.S. and were quickly crushed.

In Egypt something depressingly similar followed. Like the Shah’s, Hosni Mubarak’s past help to America was ignored. That he was a bad guy among far worse alternatives meant little. Unlike Condoleezza Rice’s August 2005 prodding of Mubarak to liberalize before it was too late, Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech was pure mytho-history, inventing out of thin air all sorts of Lala Land Islamic achievements to woo Islamists, some of whom were especially invited to attend the occasion.

We are told that James Clapper was a fool to describe the Muslim Brotherhood as “largely secular,” but he was at least a bureaucratically toadyish fool, who knew that his mischaracterization was in sync with the president’s earlier Cairo fantasies. In any case, since 2011 this administration has made it clear that it believes the Muslim Brotherhood — forget its origins, its history, and its unapologetic agenda — is more legitimate and more authentic than the alternatives. In this dreamland, it’s the unimaginative, straitlaced American establishment that deals with puppets like Mubarak. Only a gifted Barack Hussein Obama can navigate the complex and challenging eddies of the understandably anti-American Muslim Brotherhood.

This dreary story has been repeated elsewhere around the world. During the 2009 constitutional crisis in Honduras, in which the Honduran Supreme Court, Congress, and military together removed the dictatorial president, Manuel Zelaya, the Obama administration showed that its sympathies were with the authoritarian. Bashar Assad was deemed a “reformer” in a way Hosni Mubarak or monster-in-rehab Moammar Qaddafi was not — largely because he was much more vehement in his anti-American obstructionism and had proved his bona fides by despising the Bush administration. When the Assad fantasy dissipated, the administration was initially hesitant to side with pro-Western reformers, meager though they might have been. Who knows whom we are clandestinely arming now, other than that they probably do not like the U.S. any more than they do Bashar Assad.

Compare Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. The former is a product of a pro-Western, democratic, and tolerant political system — and therefore somewhat worrisome in his pro-Americanism. The latter stifles free expression, persecutes dissenters, is religiously intolerant, and mouths cheap anti-American rhetoric — and therefore apparently is an authentic, grass-roots voice that we should pay attention to. That Israelis enjoy the sort of free public expression that Palestinians both deserve and are denied is a secondary consideration, or perhaps so taken for granted as to be boring.

There should be little reason why Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey would be a favorite of an American president. Since his election in 2003, Erdogan has spent most of the last decade insidiously undermining Turkish democracy as he stifles free speech and Islamizes the Kemalist culture. Recently he offered an abjectly racist denunciation of the leader of the opposition in the Turkish parliament (“Kilicdaroglu is striving every bit he can to raise himself from the level of a black person to the level of a white man”). Apparently, Erdogan’s chief appeal to the Obama administration is that he shares the same suspicions of the West that many elites in the West hold. Accordingly, when thousands hit the streets of Istanbul to call for the same sort of Western freedoms that those in Iran had demanded in 2009, the U.S. was largely silent. The protesters, not Erdogan, were suspect.

The now-incarcerated con artist Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, despite his prior petty criminality, was not in jail on September 11, 2012. Nor did his amateurish video really cause the riots in Libya, much less earn him incarceration for national-security reasons. His real crime instead was that his having chosen to immigrate to America and his crude anti-Islamic propaganda made him easy pickings: For Obama he was a bigoted Westernized reactionary, who could be publicly pilloried to win favor with anti-American, religiously intolerant Islamists. The latter supposedly represented, for good or evil, far more authentic voices for Middle Eastern values.

The irony is that equating anti-Americanism with some sort of legitimacy is paternalistic to the core. We assume that millions abroad must be inauthentic if they dream of enjoying the same freedoms that we take for granted. The result is counter-intuitive: To get on the good side of the U.S. today, an authoritarian should employ some of the cheap jargon that our Sixties elites used of their own country. Such illiberalism conveys legitimacy and offers the likelihood of being coaxed and charmed by Barack Obama.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.