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.