For a number of years into the Cold War, American presidents were occasionally troubled by the paradox that a democratic United States was supporting right-wing anti-Communist dictatorships abroad. Either Harry Truman, John Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson — or all of them — was supposed to have scoffed, in response to objections, something like the following, “He may be a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.”
That realist cynicism has more or less remained the same. But now the ideology has flipped. Currently, the more that authoritarian thugs abroad position themselves as anti-American, the more that we seem to glamorize them. The new presidential sarcasm is, in effect, “He may be a bastard, but at least he’s an anti-American bastard.”
In the spring of 2009, Iranians said to be numbering a million demonstrated against the illiberal theocracy in their country. Yet President Obama largely ignored the protesters, who were demanding free and fair elections. Dealing with the messy Green Revolution advocates of democracy apparently wasn’t as inviting an opportunity for Obama to showcase his multicultural diplomatic dexterity as would have been dealing with the previously recalcitrant Khomeinists. When Obama has gone out his way to reach out to autocratic theocrats, he seems to have believed that their anti-Americanism must be proof of the true aspirations of the Iranian people.
After the September 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, President Obama, along with many in his administration, falsely blamed the killing of Americans on a right-wing Egyptian video-maker residing on American soil. Neither Obama nor high-ranking members of his administration mentioned the real culprits: an al-Qaeda affiliate that had pre-planned the terrorist attacks to glorify the 9/11 anniversary. Obama himself went on to declare, “The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet Mohammed.”
Nonetheless, a federal judge conveniently jailed Nakoula on a trumped-up parole violation. Stories circulated that the administration wished to ban the video from the Internet. Whether intentionally or not, Obama had sent the message that the critical — but non-violent — expression from Mr. Nakoula was somehow suspect and counterfeit. In contrast, the administration’s comparatively lackadaisical approach to finding and punishing the killers who had stormed the U.S. consulate seemed to suggest that grassroots violent Islamic outrage, while regrettable, nonetheless was not a particularly serious problem.
On New Year’s Day, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt gave an astounding lecture on the crisis in the contemporary Middle East. He called on Muslim imams to lead a “religious revolution” to stop the murderous spread of radical Islam. Sisi’s sermon drew little attention in the Western liberal press. Yet by any fair standard his was the most genuinely liberal critique of Islamic fundamentalism in a generation. It was almost as if the more Sisi echoed global concerns about Islamic radicalism, the more the Western elites considered him suspect. Certainly, Obama ignored Sisi’s warning — not so surprising, perhaps, since its enlightened message was antithetical to the president’s own 2009 Cairo proclamation, when he invited members of the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood to hear him invent all sorts of Islamic historical achievements in a lame effort to win over radical Muslims. Sisi warns Muslims of the lethality of radical Islam and counsels them about their own responsibility to stop it; Obama in the same city cited the Cold War, colonialism, and Western-led globalization as causes of understandable Islamic extremism.
Not long ago the Obama administration took the first steps toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime in Cuba. But while Obama waxed eloquent about the supposed silliness of ostracizing the Communist regime, he said comparatively little about the brutal imprisonment and torture of thousands of Cubans. It was almost as if the more Cuba has emphasized its anti-Americanism, the more the administration considers it an authentic pique.
The murderous thug Che Guevara is still iconic on college campuses, more than 40 years after his death; the names of democratic dissidents rotting in Cuban prisons are unknown. Apparently the romance of Che dovetails with popular academic anti-Western narratives. In these circles, the jailed enemies of Castro do nothing to refute the suppositions that put Che’s face on college-dorm walls.
What is going on?
Too many Western journalists, academics, and politicians focus exclusively on the sins of the West, whether out of a sincere belief that Western civilization is toxic, or for a variety of largely self-serving careerist or psychological reasons. The result is that many of our elites have a natural sympathy for those abroad who share their own suspicions about the U.S. — even if that means they must turn a blind eye on these anti-Western regimes’ thoroughly illiberal treatment of women, gays, and religious and ethnic minorities. In contrast, those abroad who seek to emulate Western tolerance are looked upon as somehow illegitimate or inauthentic — or at least ignorant about what is so wrong about Western civilization. Glorifying anti-Western bastards abroad seem to reinforce anti-Western critics at home.
This Western neurosis has real-life consequences. Reformers abroad are discouraged, feeling that they will be considered suspect. But abhorrent authoritarians sense that they will at least win acknowledgment that they represent widespread and understandable resistance to the West. The Iranian theocracy does not believe that it is repugnant to elite Westerners; Iranian democrats who believe in Western ideas of freedom probably feel that they are deemed obstacles to “normalizing relations” with Tehran. When jihad is a “holy struggle,” the Muslim Brotherhood is largely “secular,” and Islamist terrorism is merely “violent extremism” and “man-caused disasters,” radical Islamists nod that the U.S. seeks to contextualize their violence in a way that it most surely does not, for example, in the case of the defensive measures undertaken by democratic Israel.
Who in the Middle East wants to reach out to America when his motives will be questioned by the very civilization he admires? Does the U.S. reach out to Tunisia in the manner in which it courted the autocratic Recep Erdogan’s increasing Islamist Turkey? If non-Westerners without the affluence and security of the West pine for a chance at our values, what does that say about rich, safe, and smug Westerners who pooh-pooh their admiration?
There is an inherent condescension — and hypocrisy — in glorifying bastards. Violent and anti-American figures abroad like Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Che Guevara always earned a pat on the head as noble savages — but only as long as their murderous tendencies were kept at a safe distance. The truth is that our elites would rather send their children in a junior-year-abroad program to an Egypt under President Sisi than under Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. For all his sermons to Israel and his defense of the Palestinians, Secretary John Kerry would probably not wish to vacation for a month on the West Bank in preference to Tel Aviv or Haifa.
The most lonely occupation in the world right now is that of the genuine reformer who is trapped under autocracy, risking his life to damn the madness in his midst, while being ignored by the West that he so genuinely admires.