One of the things that happened to us in the course of our paroxysm of anguish and grief and fury after 9/11 was that we found out that there are worse things than brutal dictators. We had thought we were living in a post-historical world that would be governed by ideals of democracy, pluralism, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Our disagreements would be over how much to hamper the markets to provide help for the underprivileged and weak.
And then something out of some horrible old story of war and massacre happened to us, and in the center of our safest, most pluralist, most democratic sanctuaries. There it was, surreal as Bosch or Grunewald–the twin towers blazing up to heaven, like some apocalyptic artist’s vision out of the Thirty Years’ War, the destruction of the tower of Babel.
Our memories were very short, of course. Or selective. The horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag were in another continent, and already seemed hundreds of years ago, like the Napoleonic Wars—and in any case were an aberration, a black swan, a tumor upon the body of modernity. It couldn’t happen here and now.
So for a while we became an insane scourge upon the world. Not altogether a bad thing: maybe the world needed to be reminded that a liberal and peaceful democracy is the most dangerous thing in the world if it is attacked, and people seemed to have forgotten Hiroshima. Don’t tease the animals.
Our biggest mistake was to blame 9/11 on brutal dictators. Ironically, if Afghanistan had had a brutal dictator, 9/11 probably wouldn’t have happened. The terrorists had to get out of Saudi Arabia, with its very effective brutal dictators, to be able to act freely. In any case, we overthrew, or caused to be overthrown, a whole series of brutal dictators—Saddam, Khadafi, Mubarak, etc, and tried to do the same to Assad and Khomeini.
We thought the people in those countries wanted freedom—after all, thousands of their population were trying to get into the land of the free. But we didn’t notice that millions were staying, opting to keep their brutal dictators. Why? Because they wanted to keep their cultural, religious, feudal, and tribal identities, and be protected by their brutal dictator from their neighbors in the next valley with different sheiks and mullahs and rituals and accents.
The point about brutal dictators is that to get to be one you have to act in a monstrously immoral way, and get used to being without a sense of divine restraint. You are at heart secular, having pursued the way of violence and power rather than obedience to God. So you basically have no ideological axe to grind, and as long as you have your army under strict control, and can get modern weapons by selling your natural resources, you can remain in power, and your State will not fail. You may even adopt human rights reforms, as did Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran or Mubarak and Assad did in Egypt and Syria: to do so seemed to increase national prosperity and thus your own wealth. You can crush the dissent of your sectarian or ethnic populations by extermination, as the Assads did in Hama and Aleppo, or Saddam did with the Shiites in the marshes of Mesopotamia. Erdogan in Turkey has got the message.
If your country is ethnically and religiously fairly homogeneous (not a state drawn on a map by some bright colonial administrator with no anthropological knowledge at all) you might have the luck to have a priest-king instead of a brutal dictator. Members of ethnic and religious minorities might even be better off in their dhimmitude than they would be under a secular dictator. But on the other hand you’d be ruled by someone with no pragmatic restraints on his behavior. There is no brutality like religiously-commanded morally sanctified brutality. Your access to the course of moderate reform and gradual modernization would be curtailed. And sooner or later your mad Mahdi will do something idiotic on principle that a more prudent brutal dictator wouldn’t, and that calls down the catastrophic wrath of the rest of the world.
Let’s look at this from the point of view of one of the people that didn’t want to escape to the Land of the Free. If you are a religious bigot, you can’t trust the other religious bigots because you know they are just as much on a mission from God as you are, and God told them that you must be destroyed, just as He told you that they must be destroyed. But you can trust your brutal dictator who wants you to be working and paying his taxes rather than exterminating the spawn of Satan on the other side of the city. The dictator is the only one allowed to do any exterminating, and he’d rather not endanger his taxes.
So far I’ve been couching all this in the context of the Middle East today. But I could have changed the proper nouns a bit, and it would have been quite clear that I was talking about the European religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before we get all shocked about how awful these religious struggles in Asia and Africa are, we should realize that Europeans slaughtered each other for four hundred years in exactly the same way: think of Savonarola burning the paintings of Botticelli, the St Bartholomew massacre, the Spanish Inquisition, and the depopulation of Germany as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch.
In comparison with this, brutal secular dictators were a blessed relief. We have forgotten the wisdom of Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, who were well aware of what moral right-thinking people will do to each other when there is no superordinate pragmatic coercive power to restrain them. For these thinkers, issues of rule of law and consent of the governed were irrelevant until that central coercive power is absolute. And it takes a people a long, long time to get used to being able to trust the existence of that central power, a habit whose preciousness is much undervalued.
I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Arab Spring, much to my shame. I naively thought that the Middle East could leap from feudalism and theocracy to enlightened tolerant democracy in a year or two. I should have realized that the slow process of modernization under the relative stability provided by Khadafi, Mubarak, the Assads, Saddam, and the Saudis was about the best that could be expected. It took England 600 years to get from the Magna Carta to the Reform Act of 1832, a process that included the wars of the Roses, the dissolution of the monasteries, the horrors of religious persecution under Mary and Elizabeth, the bloody Civil War, Cromwell’s brutal dictatorship, the genocides in Ireland, the American revolution, the disenfranchisement and persecution of Catholics, and much rioting and legal abuse on the way.
Maybe instead of trying to overthrow the brutal dictators of the Middle East we should have heaved a sigh of relief that at least they weren’t religious lunatics. And we should have realized that even having religious lunatics in charge is better than a failed state and civil war, which is the worst thing in the human world and the seedbed of unutterable horrors everywhere. Looking further north, imagine how much worse Russia would be as a failed state and 7,000 nuclear weapons; or what a shambles Iran would have been if the Green movement had had the same success as the Arab Spring. At least they’re not Syria or Yemen or Somalia or Libya. China thanks God for Kim Jong Un for the same reasons and would hate to have to give him up. The Russians love their brutal dictator.
All this said, we may be able to glimpse something of what Donald Trump has in mind for his foreign policy. As a predatory businessman, he already inhabits the world of the brutal dictator, firing taking the place (importantly) of murder and mayhem. In his illiterate way he has seen realities that are closed to enlightened and decent people. I think he would say something like this to himself, though in words of one syllable:
“Recognize that in a world of unscrupulous and ruthless self-interest the “high road” is just another piece of rhetoric, but one which is deeply and sometimes catastrophically destabilizing to the bargaining medium. Your international rivals, especially the most brutal and selfish ones, will be more comfortable with a predictably extortionate, self-interested, and threatening bargainer than with a truly high-minded, empathetic and generous one whom they do not understand or trust. They’re unnerved by well-meaning honest people, because they’re always wondering what their ulterior motive is, and suspecting that they’re being suckered. Hence they’re less willing to make bargains. They’d rather have another bruiser in the ring than a self-appointed umpire who won’t let them do what they’re good at. They may even do good deals under the table before the bout.
“Brutal dictators are a precious resource, because they can carry through what they promise in a deal, and shut up their own dissenting voices. If what they promise is in their own interest, they will do it, even when pretending they aren’t. Their own interest is not a mystery like theology or ethics, but measurable in money and acreage and control and weapons. So you can trust them.
“Be perfectly clear that safety takes priority over principle. The whole world is safer if the US and Russia are in agreement, because they control 95% of the nuclear weapons. Keep your potential enemies closer: you will have a much better chance at stymying them if you can bribe or flatter them into enterprises that will ruin them. Or maybe they’ll become huge profit centers in terms of trade and leverage. Nixon went to China: Trump will go to Russia. If Russians are foolish enough to want someone in charge like Putin, who will keep them poor but feed their self-esteem, why discourage them?
“Ally yourself with the toughest and most brutal dictators, because (to play on the patriotism of their own oppressed people) they’ll be happy to take on the expensive and bloody business of keeping order in the failed states, civil wars, and messianic theocracies of the world. Stay out of these yourself and make money for yourself and your country from the conflicts, while weakening your unsavory allies and draining their resources by war. Brutal dictators are addicts of power; if you’re their supplier and dealer, they’ll eat out of your hand. And they’ll do all your dirty work for you.
“Win by ‘losing.’ Pretend to fight for possession of something worthless or harmful to your own side. Then allow yourself to ‘lose.’ With Russia, for instance, hand them the tar-baby of the Middle East, which is of little value (now that fracking has destroyed OPEC) and hugely expensive in terms of money, lives, and prestige. Make this look like a concession to Putin, when actually it’s a poison pill that will destroy him. North Korea is the perfect tar-baby to give to China. Let Iran take on the happy task of uniting the Shias and the Sunnis, and welcome to it. We will weep crocodile tears at the terrible things that the brutal dictators will have to do, and look like the good guys by contrast.”