Obama’s Authoritarians
Mouthing Sixties-style anti-Western slogans is the way to win the president’s heart.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan (left) with President Obama in 2010.


Victor Davis Hanson

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.