What’s in a name? As Reagan understood, whether from the Left or the Right, tyranny is tyranny.
Max Boot reminds conservatives that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, at least not when it comes to crowing about the Leftist habit of embracing dictators. Over the decades, conservatives have done more than their fair share of dancing with bad guys:
It occurred to me, re-reading the item I penned yesterday on Western elites who kowtow to dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong, that the examples I chose were primarily from the left. That is not to suggest the right should get off the hook. During the years, plenty of right-wingers have fallen prey to the charms of “friendly” dictators such as Chiang Kai-shek, Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, P.W. Botha, the Saudi royals, and Hosni Mubarak. (Botha admittedly, was elected, but by an electorate comprising only a small minority of the South African population.) Along the way these conservatives have made the same kind of unconvincing attempts to explain away their heroes’ human rights abuses as liberals routinely make for left-wing dictators. Even the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic had a few lick-spittles in a small corner of the American right.
Boot is right when he says that Americans of all stripes have trumpeted one tyranny or another because, at a few fixed points (or on all points) the dictatorship’s policies intersect with this or that American political belief. Boot gets closer to the core problem when he writes the first sentence immediately following the above paragraph:
Of course, some dictators are hard to categorize ideologically….
And that’s where people make their mistake — trying to fit dictators into one or another ideological box, whether Left or Right, Military or Cult of Personality. In fact, all dictators fit neatly into a “One Size Fits All” dictator box — they take away individual freedom and use fear to control. That’s it. An individual leader or leadership collective might start off trumpeting Marxist slogans or anti-Marxist slogans, or may, as time goes by, dress up the dictatorship with such slogans, but the end results is always the same: overwhelming government control at the expense of individual liberties.
Once one strips away the ideological trappings and focuses on the practical realities of a dictatorship, it becomes easier to figure out what to do. “What to do” invariably boils down to two choices: castigate the dictatorship entirely, or embrace it as the lesser of two evils.
The latter analysis is where most people have a moral collapse. What people should be saying is, “Yes, it’s a dictatorship that will have to be addressed somewhere down the line, but now it’s better than the alternative (anarchy or greater repression or genocide or whatever).” The problem is that most decent people find it very hard to accept that they can tolerate evil, even when they are rightly convinced that the evil they embrace is actually the lesser evil.
In order to square themselves away with their pesky conscience, people will start excusing the dictator: “He made the trains run on time.” “He reestablished national pride.” “He stabilized the economy.” These may all be entirely valid points about a given dictator but they become morally invalid, if they’re followed by the qualifier that “so he’s not such a bad guy.” Once having made that statement, people are committing the big lie as to their own sense of decency. What’s worse is that, once you’ve lied to yourself, it’s very hard to let go of that lie. It becomes a part of ones ego and self-definition. That’s why one finds good people in America supporting horrifically bad governments abroad.
The test — always — should be “What is the state of individual freedom in that country?” (Incidentally, anarchy is not individual freedom, because it puts each individual at the mercy of any other individual’s or group’s unconstrained exercise of raw power.) If it’s high, embrace that country with open arms. If it’s low, ask the next question: “Is the alternative to this low state of individual freedom worse?” If yes, one can justify supporting the tyranny provided that one never loses sight of its essential tyrannical nature, and never stops working to increase freedom with destroying the county along the way.
Whatever you do, don’t get caught up in labels such as “Left,” “Right,” “Military,” “Personality,” etc. Those all obfuscate the core issue of individual liberty.
Sometimes, of course, there are no good choices. Egypt went from repressively Military to repressively Muslim. Even as to that, though, America did have a vested interest in the former, since the latter, while no better for the Egyptian people (and perhaps worse), is worse for America. I don’t envy the diplomats tasked with making nice to Mubarak, but at least they could justify their work by claiming, rightly, that the Muslim extremist alternative was infinitely more dangerous for America’s interests. Real Politik is never a pretty thing and, as Reagan better than anyone understood, if you make Real Politik your God, you’ve abandoned your moral compass just as surely as if you wholeheartedly embraced a dictatorship in the first place.
So, it seems appropriate to remember here that today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the most important political speeches ever made by an American politician — Reagan’s famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech. Reagan, you see, never lost sight of the fact that the short-term choice may be between one ugly government and another, but that the long-term goal must always be individual freedom: