Opinion

David Rohde

Dictators never looked so good

By David Rohde
September 12, 2013

Dictators have never looked so good.

Vladimir Putin is saving the United States from another Mideast military intervention. Bashar al-Assad promises to ‘thin the herd’ of jihadists and hold Syria together. And Egypt’s new strongman, General Abdal Fattah el Sisi, says he is sorting out the Muslim Brotherhood. With each passing month in the Middle East, it seems, authoritarianism grows more attractive.

Leaders described as “repressive” sound eminently reasonable. They promise to bring order to chaos without dirtying American hands. Putin’s op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday was the latest example.

Written with the help of the American public relations firm Ketchum, the piece provoked a dizzying array of reactions. Here’s one fact check by Max Fisher of the Washington Post. Here’s a take down from Human Rights Watch. And the New Yorker posted this hilarious Andy Borowitz mock Modern Love column by the macho former KGB officer.

The views Putin expresses are seductive. Some of his criticisms of American power are legitimate. American unilateralism — from Iraq to drone strikes to National Security Agency surveillance — undermines President Barack Obama’s credibility on striking Syria.

But in the end Putin’s opinion piece matches his Russia. It is appealing on the surface but hollow at its core. Throughout, Putin lies by omission. In other spots, he lies flat-out. Here are two examples that would make Orwell proud.

Putin presents himself as the pacifist and Obama as the militarist. He argues that American cruise missile strikes will “result in more innocent victims” and that the U.S. increasingly relies “solely on brute force.” He makes no mention of the vast amount of weaponry Russia has shipped to Assad over the last two years. Or the 2008 military incursion Russia carried out into Georgia without the approval of the UN Security Council.

The Russian president then portrays the entire Syrian opposition as jihadists. He says there are “few champions of democracy in Syria” and ”more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes fighting the government.”

No mention is made of Assad’s decision to fire on unarmed demonstrators when the uprising against him began. Nor does Putin say that government forces committed eight of the nine mass killings recently investigated by the United Nations. Finally, citing no evidence, he claims that “there is every reason to believe” that the rebels carried out the August 21st chemical attack outside Damascus.

The issue, though, is not a tendentious op-ed. It is the state of Putin’s Russia. While he declares himself a defender of “international law” in Syria, Putin’s government systematically violates international law at home  – from jailing political opponents, to imprisoning independent journalists to advocating laws that legalize homophobia.

I briefly visited Moscow in May, while covering Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip to Russia. Western diplomats and Russian analysts painted a bleak portrait of Russia’s future. In a globalized economy where innovation, foreign investment and transparency are key to growth, Putin is suffocating all three.

Putin’s relentless centralization of economic and political power has created a one-dimensional economy dependent on oil revenues. The random court cases brought against Putin rivals have prompted Russian and foreign investors to flee. They pulled $1.2 billion from Russia-focused equity funds this spring, Reuters reported, citing Putin’s failure to enact long-promised economic reforms.

In Egypt, there are clear parallels. Gen. Sisi is promising stability, playing on nationalist sentiment and crushing all potential rivals, from Islamists to liberals to journalists. Ursula Lindsey reported in the New York Times Thursday that an ultra-nationalist “cult of Sisi” is emerging in the country.

“Of course, this obfuscates some uncomfortable facts,” Lindsey wrote. “Having shaped the country’s economy and politics for the last 60 years, [the Egyptian military] is one of the institutions most responsible for Egypt’s corruption and decline.”

Signs are emerging that the brutal crackdown Sisi launched two months ago that killed 1,300 Muslim Brotherhood members may backfire. Last week, the country’s pro-military interior minister narrowly survived a bomb attack. If elements of the group have radicalized, a full-scale insurgency could emerge in Egypt.

Yes, Obama has waffled on both Egypt and Syria. He has repeatedly contradicted himself on national security. And the concept of “American exceptionalism” is clearly repugnant to other nations.

But Putin’s defense of Assad – one of the most cynical exercises in statecraft in decades — does not make him a visionary. Nor does it make Russian-style authoritarianism a model for the Middle East.

There is nothing complicated or altruistic about Putin’s strategy in Syria. He is defending Assad in order to preserve his key ally in the Middle East and his own rule in Russia. Putin sees Syria as the latest in a long line of American interventions that has toppled rulers. Dismissing protests against himself and other autocrats as CIA plots, he probably fears he may be next.

As 100,000 people have died, Putin has used obstruction at the United Nations — not deft diplomacy — to elevate his standing in the world. He has spread false conspiracy theories and glossed over Syrian government war crimes to again make Russia a player on the global stage.

Difficult questions need to be asked about U.S. interests in the Middle East.  Fostering thriving, stable democracies should be our objective. But quickly achieving that ideal is not possible. In each nation, different approaches are needed.

The Arab Spring has shown that rushed transitions to democracy can devolve into chaos, where jihadists can thrive. But we should not be fooled into thinking that authoritarianism is a long-term answer to the complex dynamics roiling the Middle East. It creates stability in the short-term — and stagnation and decay over time.

The path to democracy in the region is long, complicated and deeply unnerving. But it should remain our ultimate goal.

 This post was updated at 11:30pm EST on Thursday, September 12, 2013.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media during a news conference at the G20 summit in St.Petersburg September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

Comments
21 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Part of the reason Putin looks so good is because the USA leadership looks so bad.

Putin’s message has resonated among Americans who are sick and tired of Washington’s endless cycles of bombings, invasions, embargoes and assassinations abroad.

The Russian President has proposed all of the grown-up solutions to this point. All the solutions, that is, that do not involve shredding thousands people to pieces on a months-long bombing campaign, igniting a regional conflagration, or installing Al-Qaeda in Syria just because that is what the Sunni Gulf autocrats and the raving lunatics in Israel want.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive
 

The author alludes to his over education and years of living under his mothers apron, shame on Reuters for employing a moron, the the west is no better than Putin’s Russia, America has murdered, Plundered, Tyrannised and raped its way across half the globe either directly or via governments sponsored whilst under the sanctimonious guise of righteousness, and in the process become the most hated, loathed and vilified nation on the face of the planet.
The Author might consider truck driving as an alternative occupation.

Posted by Labatouche | Report as abusive
 

You seem to want to paint Putin as evil, while the Americans are pure-white. Mr. Rohde, there are no saints in international politics. While I’m no big fan of Putin, we need to think about the human suffering that this Syrian adventure will create. Sure, Putin has put his best foot forward and lied by omission, but similarly you have also lied by omission. Examples: You don’t mention that the US and its allies (Saudi, Qatar, Israel) have actively supported the so-called rebels (who are mainly foreign jihadist fighters including some Al-Qaeda) with weapons, money, intelligence. (b) What about the US invasion of tiny Grenada on nothing but a whim! There are more, but these will suffice.
Many countries fire on protestors – The US govt fired on its own protestors during the Vietnam war (Kent State Univ); Saudi, Bahrain, recently fired on their own protestors; this is no reason to attack Syria. b) Killings in Syria have been brutal, indiscriminate, and carried out by both sides. c) Finally, citing no evidence, only assertions, the US govt wants to attack Syria. (The Russian foreign ministry did release a report finding that the rebels were responsible for the poison gas attack which has more hard data than the assertion laden US ‘evidence’). And if a democratically elected parliament passes anti-gay laws it is their prerogative. We may not like it in the west, but cultures are different, why are we trying to impose our standards on all and sundry? Next: There is also nothing altruistic about America’s action – it is hard-nosed power play, trying to corner the last remaining oil power (Iran). US planners have as little regard for the suffering of the Syrian people as perhaps Putin has. As for obstructing action in the UN, note that the US has been the biggest violator of UN laws and has wielded the veto the most, almost always against the suffering Arab people.

Posted by KenKam | Report as abusive
 

The author, an experienced sharpie, distorts the facts.
This is sad.
Putin is not a dictator! Yes it is an authoritarian ruler and his reign is not the best way, but he enjoys huge support in Russia. He is a populist! This is the most evil thing in it!
Putin is a loyal ally of the United States! He may have disagreements, but he always overtly or covertly supported the interests of America and the (global) America!
Russia did not have the cash for the support of Assad! In addition to running the old contracts (negligible in terms of money), it was not delivered the latest equipment!
Assad enjoys wide support in Syria! Until August 21, he defeated in the Civil War!

Posted by asd345vera | Report as abusive
 

Of cause they look good. The alternative Iranian style war is good, anti-western and terror is good clergy. That type clergy in most of the states in the middle east has ran the schools. In fair elections they will be voted in.

Who do you want in power. A dictator who kills his own people at a low rate. Or elected clergy who want support international terrorism revive crusades.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive
 

1. Keep President Putin calling “dictator” – again and again – Mr. Rohde insults 67% of Russians who voted for Putin. Including me.
This is low. The author could present disagreements with Putin’s particular decisions. But his generalization is unacceptable for a decent source like Reuters.
2. Mr. Rhode is apparently not educated enough. Or – what would be even worse – he might know but repeated distorted reality’s arguments. However, I assume that the Reuters’s readers are educated enough to know (or get to know) that:
all previous UN SC resolutions in respect of Syria were blocked by Russia and China for a serious reason. They all included imposing sanctions on Syria. Such U.N. resolutions are going under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.
That section of the charter also allows military intervention to enforce Security Council demands.
That was exactly what happened to Libya. And that was what Russia and China opposed.
Assumptions regarding the future of the Russian economy are based on nothing. The economic profile of Russia will always be different. However, what makes you think that it cannot provide a sustainable growth of GDP? As of today, the Russian public debt is ca. 13%.
The Russian representative system is in the development phase. Calling our system “authoritarian” just confirms the appalling lack of knowledge based on the ordinary Russophobic agenda.
The author’s arrogance exceeds all limits of decency.
Option writing should not turn into cheap propaganda.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive
 

As neither American nor Russian let me say that over the past 12 months my views of Putin and Obama have changed somewhat. Putin is no longer the villain he once seemed and Obama is a man who actions have a darker side to them that I was completely blind to at the time when he published “The Audacity of Hope”. I guess the title of that book is not so far off the mark if you say it with sarcasm.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive
 

“No mention is made of Assad’s decision to fire on unarmed demonstrators when the uprising against him began.”

This lie is the one that gave birth to all western lies including accusing Assad himself(not the army) of using chemical weapons on children…

Putin is not a dictator. What is true is that a president in Russia has more power that a president in the US who is beholden to special interests. Also Zionists have no power over Putin…Putin listen to them but at the end he does what he wants. That does not make him a dictator.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive
 

People who hated FDR thought of him as a dictator too. He very nearly was. In times of crisis and economic stagnation, the strong man who can get things moving is always seductive. DEMOCRACY is something of a luxury actually, and works best when not too severely stressed with competing priorities. It is a far more abstract, sophisticated and theoretical idea than autocracy and historically has been very short lived. And what may have given it a boost here is that people were too busy exploiting the natural resources and building lives in the expanding economy and territories and they seem to have been far less critical of the inadequacies of the government. The government also had a much harder time imposing its will on them. It was a very weak central government. It was rife with political corruption, vote selling and voter fraud. Money was the true governor of the country. More people in the past could keep their distance from it and could live, more or less, without it. That isn’t the case at all anymore. And wasn’t it not more than a few decades ago when this country was talking about the imperial presidency? That didn’t start with Nixon but with Theodore Roosevelt and it hasn’t ended here yet. If anything – it’s gotten worse.

Autocrats appeal to the autocrat that tends to live in so many people. The world is stuffed with little dictators because it is the shortest route to a quick decision. It has been said that the ancient Romans made the emperors because the ruling classes wanted a move efficient way to make decisions governing their vast empire. They didn’t count on the monsters they also made and didn’t know how to rein them in except by killing them. Most of the old emperors didn’t live as long as a one term president and the quickest route to assassination was for any of them to attack the powers that put them on the throne to begin with.

The old Romans were almost “democratic” by the time of Maximinus. The army murdered one emperor about his time because they figured he’d been around two long at three or four years and it was time for a change and a new round of “gifts” from the successor.

Putin may seem to be pulling Russia’s strings but one should really look behind and over him to see who’s really pulling his. Democracies are much better at absorbing or adjusting to changes of leadership. A President can’t get too comfortable in his chair in the Oval office. Autocracies suffer agonies of dislocation and crisis whenever they loose a head of state. There is always the prospect of a civil war if there is no clear successor.

And how could Putin not pattern himself after the Tsars? All of their former palaces, even down to the pen set and knick-knacks on the desk of Nicholas II were preserved as the holy icons many Russians thought the Tsars were in spite of the Revolution. They disposed of the bodies of the imperial family like they were garbage but kept the hardware and real estate and have spent fortunes repairing all of the palaces after the destruction caused by World War II. Tsarskoye Selo is a popular advertisement of Russian “greatness” and even its charm and beauty. And it may very well be that every Russian who sees it says secretly to himself, that’s where we must be as a country again. All that gold leaf is hypnotizing.

Putin knows how to tap the deepest instincts of the Russian’s just like Hitler knew how to tap the murky depths of the German psyche but if he becomes too entrenched and too powerful they will, no doubt? one would hope? dispose of him too, especially if he’s had a hand in the disposal of political enemies.

Any state that tends to define itself as master and slaves can turn nasty and make everyone in the system a disposable slave too, including the former master. Emperors are always surrounded by wanna bes and they know they can do the job as well as “the master”. All the master does is serve as an effective teaching aid and role model for schooling more like himself. And he lives at the bottom of an ocean of jealousy and resentment. Isn’t that the case with Assad?

All emperors and dictators are like Icarus’s son. Sooner or later the country will burn his wings off. Revolution is also a part of the Russian psyche too – now. If he grabs and lifts the country by the scruff of it’s neck – it might just kick him in his teeth. And the fatter his wallet becomes the bigger and more bloated a target he will become. The powers-that-be could be using him until they find a better replacement and then they will strip him and discard him too. He came out of nowhere and he can be returned to nowhere if it suits the right people. If he’s had a hand in political disposals he’d deserve it too.

BTW – where did all the “oligarchs” go? Aren’t they still the legs, seat and frame of Putin’s throne, just like in the heyday of Tsarksoye Selo?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

yeah, but Russia relies on oil because when soviet Russia collapsed everything else was sold for scrap metal by champions of democracy and freedom, no because of Putin. Putin just makes best of pretty nasty situation left after friend Boris

Posted by barenski | Report as abusive
 

If Putin’s net worth is in the billions, as rumor has it, then he certainly did make the “best of a nasty situation”.

But I agree that Yeltsin was a fool and drunkard who gave the shop away for the sake of votes and flimsy popularity. His tenure was disgusting, reckless, irresponsible and scuttled the lives of everyone too old to take part in his revolution.

Putin did put the house in order and attempted to repair some of the social welfare damage. But nations are fickle and when they are feeling comfortable and firmly prosperous how likely are the Russians to remember his contribution any more than they seem to recall old what’s-his-name before Yeltsin? He hasn’t been mentioned in my hearing in years and now I draw a blank. He opened the door with perestroika and drunk Yeltsin fell through it.

I just looked it up: Michael Gorbachev! If it hadn’t been for him the country would not have had a nonviolent revolution. He undercut the old guard by setting that policy.

I watched the movie “Peter the Great” with Maximilian Schell years ago and still have the copy. In the scene of his coronation, Peter (and his retarded older brother who was co-Tsar) were showered with gold coins.

Is that what the Russians are doing with Putin? It isn’t going to remain a democarcy for very long if every po’ boy who makes the big time lards himself and his friends with everything they can manage to stuff into their bank accounts. Most US presidents didn’t get filthy rich in office. They lived comfortable upper middle class lives and their families were not elevated into the ranks of the super rich. A few million dollars is not super rich but having billions is. I think the American instinct was that it insured that the President remained in scale with the bulk of the population. He could look with some disinterest (disinterest in the sense of having nothing to gain financially) at the situation of both the highest and the lowest. Stuffing himself with all the assets he can legally(?) acquire is too like the old world and even the ancient world. It’s a very elite definition of “democracy” Putin is peddling. It makes him a panderer willing to set social and economic policies while doing his best to avoid having to live like those who are most affected by them.

That kind of money could make one sober and drunk at the same time. Is it that now in Russia – and everywhere else it seems – if a politician doesn’t have mega millions, no one would respect him?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

The world would be a better place without American interventions.And Obama is just one more MORON IN CHIEF. They did not learned from 9/11, I hope more comes and may be they will understanding.

Posted by ettore1624 | Report as abusive
 

jrpardinas: “Part of the reason Putin looks so good is because the USA leadership looks so bad.” – this is a very typical comment… and very wrong.
One reasons why Putin looks so good is because he was made so by his propaganda machine that became pretty skillful for the last 13 years of his ruling in Russia. All these images of Putin macho man, Putin on a horse, Putin and Siberian tiger, Putin flying, Putin diving, etc. etc., have been a great commercial trick that has worked nicely on uninformed populace not only in Russia, but worldwide too, thanks to the Internet.
Also, for many reasons, we are flatly losing propaganda war to Russia, and Russian oil money that Putin has almost full control of isn’t the least. If you read Russian Internet and official press today, you’d think that the Cold War is still alive and well. (BTW, this also explains why Mr. Snowden was so welcome in Russia…)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Putin is a typical case of Napoleon complex… his St. Helena is waiting for him.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive
 

“Dictators never looked so good”
But warmonger like Obama even look worse.

Posted by blackout | Report as abusive
 

This is an era eerily familiar to the 1930s. The “strong men” then like Stalin, Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini were lauded as men of action and accomplishment. Violence and repression were considered regrettable by many but then many commentators said you needed to break eggs to make an omelet. And Mussolini was also posing for photos with his shirt off! The leaders of Western European democracies were considered weak and feckless. And the U.S back then, as now, was in its own little financially fraught world, fighting its own internal battles in an isolationist backwater because the economy had been hallowed out and society was polarized between the very wealthy and the struggling. Very spooky.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive
 

Putin lectures on patience and diplomacy. Then tells Pussy Riot, rich rivals, gay people, and critics in general…. to shut up or he’ll kill them in their prison showers.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive
 

It is simple why the USA looks very, very much like a “militarist” country — because it is, or at least its “leadership” is. How many wars have we fought in the past 25 years? How many years of “peace”? Any?

Our politicians chant war slogans as if they actually have some sort of meaning beyond “Go Team!” cheerleading. We are up to our necks in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent, Iraq, Yemen and the Sudan. Now our “honor” is on the line to start at lest two more Middle Eastern wars, which incidentally benefit Israel but not the USA, in Iran and Syria. Never mind flying in the face of public opinion. Like Richard Nixon, Obama ran on and was elected on a “peace” platform and then turned on his hopeful supporters to back the same AIPAC and Israeli crowd that backed Romney. War, war and more war.

And then they all talk about how we “cannot afford” to take care of our own people!

Yes, militarist is exactly the correct term. For both “Parties”.

This is not even considering the massive police database that has been compiled on ordinary citizens who live peacefully here. These people have no claim at all to back “democracy”. They are classic Fascists.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

Putin’s Op-Ed was one of the best criticisms of US foreigh policy I have ever read. Go Putin!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive
 

@ettore – You hope more events like 911 come? Than you will guarantee a state of continuous war for the rest of your life and maybe longer!

There is no real way war can be made effectively “lite” or painless for this country or any other. The last ten years have made misery for hundreds of thousands in the ME and tens of thousands of service men and women here. This is a large country with a thick skin. But it can’t ignore the low grade pains (rather, severe pains absorbed by a less stressed and more comfortable polity) it is enduring now, however well managed the PR surrounding the war efforts. Positive spin only starts to look bizarre and a fraud.

The country can try to flatter and praise the professional warriors and their families but that won’t work forever. Chronic pain and loss are never forgotten. People who are hurt tend to want to hit back because chronic pain tends to erode one’s fortitude and convictions or it makes one mean and ready to do whatever it takes to make it stop, or make the loss seem worthwhile, or simply to get even.

Over ten years of war and other crisis is really ten years of poison injected under this country’s, and many others, thick skin or thick skulls.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

Wihile Putin’s cronies pump out to US and western banks the wealth of Russian state (I believe the author of this article knows it for sure) his political anti-American stance looks somewhat hypocritical. But essentially the UN mandate for any military actions abroad is welcome once again.

Posted by AKondra | Report as abusive
 

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