Understanding Dictatorships

Recent anti-government demonstrations in Iran have raised our consciousness about the dangers of misunderstanding Third World dictatorships. To most Americans, the word dictator means a Stalin or Hitler — which is the reason our presidents usually accuse new enemies of being new "Hitlers." Contraposing this, the traditional view of most Americans is that citizens support their government and, if a people really opposed their rulers, the citizenry would overthrow them, like we did the British in 1776. From this viewpoint, the bombing and killing of enemy civilians is "morally" justifiable because "they" generally approved of their (evil) government, or otherwise would have rebelled and overthrown it.

Hitler and Stalin are best understood as totalitarian dictators, a 20th century European creation, enabled by modern science and political mobilization. Third World dictatorships are different. Most of them are very weak and don’t exercise total control, as evidenced by Iran.

The most common misunderstanding centers on the fact that all governments, even dictatorships, need some form of legitimacy to justify their rule to their own people. Otherwise they must revert to brute force, which is both expensive and corrupting to the police and army, who then abuse their respective powers and cause growing public resentment and anger. But while force and fear are temporarily effective, they are not enough for the longer term. A foreign threat thus helps dictators, as it is used to justify their despotic rule. Economic blockades can actually reinforce dictators’ power and indeed even make their cohorts richer as they profit from the consequent smuggling and black markets. In the eyes and minds of the conquered, American soldiers certainly do not have "legitimacy," as we have repeatedly learned.

Understanding Dictatorships

Understanding how such dictatorships actually function would help Washington to avoid more foreign policy disasters. If Americans better understood the weaknesses of most foreign tyrannies, we’d be less inclined to see them as great threats. Also, we would have to face the reality that administering them effectively would mean establishing a permanent corps of occupation forces on the British or Roman model. Even then modern communications and weaponry might make our rule fail. Tribal societies cannot be easily converted into democracies.

In the old days legitimacy came from the divine right of kings or priests who gained their authority from God. In tribal societies, custom and inherited status have played much the same role. Tribes are ruled by a council of elders on the theory that they have the experience, knowledge, and wisdom to make intelligent decisions.

The Roman emperors claimed religious and Senatorial authority. Later they provided a "rule of law" with safety and free trade for their subjects who previously had only known wars, piracy, and civil strife. Remember that Saint Paul could not be tortured by the police because he was a Roman citizen. Yet even the Romans needed to provide bread and circuses (welfare) to the masses in order to maintain support for their legitimacy.

In modern times democracy provides that legitimacy, hence the extreme measures — including fake elections — dictatorships will go to in order to claim the semblance of lawful control. Wartime, however, was always recognized as needing centralized, unrestrained rule. In ancient Greece even democracies, when at war, would elect a dictator for a year at a time on the theory that only a single ruler could act forcefully without delays and second guessing by committees, elders, or legislators.

Tribal Power 

In Iraq we learned belatedly that Saddam Hussein ruled through tribal leaders, in particular by bribing and accommodating them. Intimidation was certainly part of his rule, but not the base of it. Washington’s usual war propaganda went all out with stories of his (in particular his sons’) torturing the innocent and killing at will. However, in tribal societies, rape and wanton killings bring about vengeance and are not done lightly. Hussein ruled mainly through his own tribe, relying upon them in key positions of power, a method in accordance with tribal traditions.

Nor was it considered "corrupt" to use government power to profit one’s family, clan, or tribe. Everybody did it! Look at Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Afghanistan today. Profiting oneself, one’s clan, and one’s tribe is a tradition stretching back thousands of years. What America calls "corruption" has been the world’s way of life until relatively recently. Saddam Hussein’s original theory of government was Ba’athist Arab socialism, a form of national socialism or fascism first supported in the Arab world as a way to modernize their nations. But after the First Gulf War in 1991 Hussein reverted to tribal control.

The British, on the other hand, ruled their empire by playing different tribes against each other. They well understood that after generations of war, rape, and pillage most tribes hated their neighbors far more than they hated any foreign enemy. Only in modern times, with the rise of nationalism, did Third World nations finally overthrow European imperialism.

Washington’s plans to create democracy and legitimate government for Iraq and Afghanistan in a few years crashes against these traditions. For thousands of years tribal systems have provided for personal and economic security. Such traditions do not change quickly. Clans and tribes provided for widows and orphans (insurance), shared economic scarcity, provided for common defense, and offered vengeance for harm done to their members. (For details see my earlier article "Tribes, Veils and Democracy.") However, tribal societies are also inherently unjust for smaller tribes and thus are usually unstable and unable to bring much economic development.

Rotten to the Core

The weakness of most Third World dictatorships is evidenced by their dysfunction and poverty. In the case of Iran, for example, gasoline costs only 20 cents per gallon, although much is imported and the government is too incompetent to build more refineries. A strong government would not be subsidizing it. The mullahs used to have legitimacy on the basis of religion, traditional values, and nationalism. Now, however, they’ve lost most of it and depend upon the force of their militia and "Revolutionary Guards." The reward for these enforcers has been the control of many businesses and even the black market. Yet that easy money corrupts them and makes them more abusive. Yet Iran is demonized in America as if it were a competent state — it isn’t. And its government won’t last. 

The former appeal of communism to many Third World leaders was because its ideology gave it a form of legitimacy, justifying the most brutal repression to break down tribal loyalties in the name of throwing off imperialist rule and promising fast economic development. Communist revolutionaries were very cognizant of the political strength of tribal custom and religious fundamentalism. They saw both as being inimical to both their rule and to economic development and tried always to suppress them.

When allied with nationalism, communism was effective in throwing off European (and American) colonialism. However, communism was so inefficient and unresponsive a system that most regimes collapsed or adopted many free market measures once Soviet subsidies ceased coming. 

Maintaining Legitimacy 

I saw the problem of legitimacy firsthand when I lived in Cuba in 1958 during the last year of President Fulgencio Batista’s rule. He depended upon the police and army and on those businessmen who profited from his government. But Cuba was developing a middle class that wanted legitimate, responsive government like they saw in America. Batista never used the type of brutality Fidel Castro later imposed, but his government was corrupt, and was dependent on cronyism and upon its police, who were in turn corrupted by power. I saw how they would shake down businesses and common citizens, but still Batista depended upon them. He could not control their corruption which then contributed to his overthrow.

Similarly, when I first visited Russia with a group of journalists in 1987 the black market was widespread. One dealer even traveled with us in our Inturist government tour bus. The government was beginning to collapse. Widespread corruption, incompetence, a failed war in Afghanistan, and the widespread knowledge of how much better life was in the prosperous West fatally weakened the legitimacy of the regime. I remember arriving in Finland on the return trip. Taking a bus in Helsinki cost me a dollar compared to Moscow’s subway which cost only a few cents. I thought then how Finland had a strong democratic government, not afraid to charge riders for the real costs of public transport.

In the 1960s I lived in Peru after a coup by leftist generals who promised a reform agenda. The generals tried to base their legitimacy on opposing American business domination of their country, by claiming to represent a "Third Way," neither capitalist nor communist, and by promising economic fairness and fast development. I saw the ineptness of their rule as they tried to avoid brutal methods of control. When they failed to deliver on their promises, they lost their "legitimacy" and soon returned the nation to civilian rule.  Interestingly, state control of the media allowed corruption to flourish. Intellectuals think the purpose of a free media is to allow criticism of government policy. But its main effect is to expose the corruption of government officials. We see today in Russia the same situation as media control begets growing corruption.

Understanding Third World governments and tribal societies would save America from the disastrous interventions, unending wars, and growing domestic bankruptcy. We can’t simply "win" wars with such regimes, as jingoists demand, and then come home to celebrate. War is not a football game.

This article originally appeared at Reason Magazine.

Read more by Jon Basil Utley

Author: Jon Basil Utley

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.