Politics & Policy

The Tyrant Temptation

From the May, 16 issue of NR

There is a close contest under way to choose the most embarrassing aspect of our Libyan misadventure: Is it the utter fecklessness of American and NATO power in the field, the murkiness of the result being sought, or the wider incoherence of the Obama administration’s perspective on the “Arab Spring,” one day declaring that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is “not a dictator,” demanding his ouster the next, and then going on to declare hands-off in Syria because its bloodthirsty ruler, Bashar Assad, is a “reformer”?

The Obama administration can at least claim that a certain amount of opacity or ambiguity is necessary in dealing with a region of such immense instability and political immaturity. The intellectual class that had come to regard Qaddafi as a more or less normal ruler with potentially reasonable or liberal inclinations has no such excuse, and their self-deception has had the consequence of enabling the policy incoherence of our political leaders.

It is one thing to accept the existence of tyrants as a practical matter, but it is debilitating to take the next step and whitewash their characters. Qaddafi has been among the worst of the worst since his rise to power in the late 1960s — calling Libya under Qaddafi a rogue state is an insult to rogues everywhere. This is the man who in the 1970s wanted to use a borrowed Egyptian submarine to sink the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner and who routinely sent assassination squads abroad to kill Libyan exiles. “It is the duty of the Libyan people constantly to liquidate their opponents . . . at home and abroad, everywhere,” Qaddafi declared. He once ordered the assassination of an American ambassador to Egypt; only a stern warning from Washington, tipped to the plot, dissuaded him. At one point in the 1980s, Qaddafi was supplying arms to guerrilla insurgencies in 45 countries, arming the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and providing $300 million in weaponry for the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. About a third of African nations, many of them fellow despotisms, refused to have diplomatic relations with Libya. Qaddafi crushed several coup attempts against him the old-fashioned way: with mass executions of opponents.

But when Qaddafi, under mounting diplomatic and economic pressure, renounced his nuclear-weapons program in 2003 and agreed at last to compensate the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing, it was all the opening the experts needed to rehabilitate the Libyan loon. Ray Takeyh, senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, pronounced in the Washington Post that “Qaddafi’s recent rhetoric and behavior hint at a genuine ideological conversion. The collapse of the Soviet Union, a growing interest in Africa and an emerging disdain for Arab politics led him to offer a new vision for his restive nation,” one that supposedly included liberalizing markets and encouraging more foreign investment. (Notably absent was any offer to make restitution for the foreign assets he seized back in the 1970s, but never mind.) British sociologist Anthony Giddens visited Qaddafi in his tent in 2006 and wrote afterward that “Qaddafi’s ‘conversion’ may have been driven partly by the wish to escape sanctions, but I get the strong sense that it is authentic and that there is a lot of motive power behind it.” Dartmouth professor Dirk Vandewalle explained on NPR recently that Qaddafi’s bizarre squad of all-female “Amazon” bodyguards was not evidence of the usual tyrant’s indulgence in kinkiness, but arose from his “attempt to improve the situation of Libyan women.”

But the gold standard for moral blindness to Qaddafi’s character and regime belongs to Rutgers University political scientist Benjamin Barber (“the internationally renowned political theorist,” as he describes himself in his latest press release), who until mid-February was a board member of the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, the outfit Qaddafi’s son Saif operated as a forum for “complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances.” Who needs Amnesty International when you’ve got Saif Qaddafi on the job? Barber was the ideal Libyan lackey, having written in the Washington Post in 2007: “Qaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world . . . . Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Qaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials if Libya is to join the global system.”

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.


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