The Tyrant Temptation
From the May, 16 issue of NR


But now Barber is shocked to discover that this laid-back, would-be-liberal regime, this California of the Mediterranean, is repressive: “The position of the Foundation has now been made untenable by the country-wide repression of protesters by the most barbaric means, and the public declaration of the Foundation’s honorary chairman, Saif Qaddafi, endorsing the repression and rationalizing the massacre of protesters.” Who could have seen that coming?

Barber added on the Huffington Post that the prospects for democracy are now very slim — unless Qaddafi survives, in which case “all those who cast him as nothing more than a monstrous buffoon will have to rethink their easy dismissal and deal with stark reality again.”

But the stark reality is that Qaddafi is a tyrant plain and simple, and tyrants always abide in tyrannical oppression. Equally stark is the reality that Barber’s approach to tyrants is entirely typical of modern political science. As Leo Strauss observed in his treatise On Tyranny, a commentary on Xenophon’s Hiero, “it is no accident that present-day political science has failed to grasp tyranny as what it really is. Our political science is haunted by the belief that ‘value judgments’ are inadmissible in scientific considerations, and to call a regime ‘tyrannical’ clearly amounts to pronouncing a ‘value judgment.’ The political scientist who accepts this view of science will speak of the mass-state, of dictatorship, of totalitarianism, or authoritarianism, and so on, and as a citizen he may wholeheartedly condemn these things; but as a political scientist he is forced to reject the notion of tyranny as ‘mythical.’”

Barber and other intellectuals who cozied up to Qaddafi did eventually render such value judgments, but only after the tyrants’ crimes became so conspicuous as to embarrass them.

Intellectuals have always been cheap dates for tyrants, never more so than during the Cold War, when Communist rulers learned how easy it was to get Western intellectuals to swoon before the lyrics of justice and equality. Redemptive ideological movements such as Communism may have lost their élan, but the chief attraction of tyrants for intellectuals is not ideology but proximity to power: hence Thomas Friedman’s endless “China is awesome” columns.

Behind the immense egos of “internationally renowned political theorists” such as Barber (or Friedman) lies a hubristic confidence in the efficacy of their wisdom. Xenophon had their number 2,500 years ago: Just as the poet Simonides hopes to instruct the tyrant Hiero on how to govern as a benevolent dictator, today’s wise poets of human improvement think they can at the very least moderate the modern tyrant’s excesses if only they gain his ear. And even if the tyrant is unwilling to govern in a way that is worthy of honor, the intellectuals can bask in the self-honor of their endeavors to “reach out” as they pat themselves on the back in Davos.

These enablers of modern tyranny can always be counted on to overlook its markers, which are obvious even in cases in which violent oppression is largely absent. One hallmark of the tyrant is that he always loots his people and does so far in excess of his own material needs. But the United States and its coalition partners were reportedly stunned when they moved to freeze Qaddafi’s assets and found that he had socked away about $60 billion, a sum that works out to more than $9,000 per capita in a poor and decaying country. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had a more modest $3.5 billion in his own Swiss bank account, but there are rumors that his net worth may be as much as $70 billion. The tyrant’s insatiability for recognition and reassurance against personal insecurity always runs deeper than the need for a huge cash stash; think of Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection, and the nearly uniform practice of plastering the tyrant’s picture more ubiquitously than the Coca-Cola logo. The greed and the vanity are expressions of the same underlying pathology of tyranny.

The lowliest social-science undergraduate ought to be able to make out these hallmarks of rulers who are never going to rule in the best interests of their subjects, let alone allow any genuine liberalization. Tyrants understand themselves quite well — this is one of the clear teachings of Xenophon, whose Hiero tells Simonides that the tyrant “lives night and day as one condemned by all human beings to die for his injustice.” Poland’s foreign minister and former National Review correspondent Radek Sikorski reported in 2005 about a conversation at a diplomatic dinner in Havana involving Fidel and Raúl Castro, during which the former rebuffed a speculative suggestion from his brother that Cuba consider liberalizing its economy, arguing that they’d both end up swinging from a lamppost in a matter of months.

The elites’ excusing of tyranny has real-world consequences, as it leads to appeasement and weakness. It makes it possible for Nicolas Sarkozy to say watery things such as “Qaddafi is not perceived as a dictator in the Arab world. He is the longest-serving head of state in the region — and, in the Arab world, that counts,” and for Hillary Clinton to say of Syria’s Assad, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

How about instead we call such tyrants and their regimes by their proper names — maybe even call them “evil”? That word raises hackles, but unlike so much of what we have heard of Qaddafi and his kind, it would have the virtue of being true.

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980–1989. This article originally appeared in the May 16, 2011, issue of National Review.