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John Metzler Archive
Monday, March 28, 2011

Dictators and the sizzle factor: Being evil is not enough

UNITED NATIONS — As the international forces enforce a No Fly Zone against Col. Gadhafi’s Libya which has now morphed into a No Tank Zone, and which resembles a No Plan Zone, the Obama Administration’s conflict by coalition has leveled the Libyan playing field, but has equally strained the NATO alliance, and likely insured deeper American involvement in yet another North African conflict.


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A reader in the Far East asked me why Col. Gadhafi, as bad as he is, is seen as the Evil Incarnate, while dictators in Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran are not presented that same way in the press? Thus is a dictator defined only by authoritarian deeds such as political, press, and religious repression or does the strongman also have to have that colorful and often theatrical persona appealing to the media? Or perform a singularly appalling atrocity, preferably on the 24/7 media, to justify the title? Good question. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein certainly fit that job description.

Now think of contemporary dictators circ. January 2011, or before the Middle East began to boil. Which rulers came to mind as the perpetual bad guys? Col. Moammar Gadhafi, would likely be the choice, closely followed by Iran’s Mauhmud Admadinijad. Ruling the Socialist Libyan Arab Jamahiriya or the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to encourage irrational hubris and engender that megalomaniac quality which makes and keeps them in the headlines. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, while not a nice guy, was pretty low-key and off the political radar screens. Ditto for Yemen’s ruler.

So what about Syrian strongman Bashir Assad? Well he’s certainly a practicing dictator, whose authoritarian control of Syria and crimes against his people rival if not exceed the theatrical and bizarre Gadhafi. Yet Assad, despite running a secular regime is closely aligned with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but presents a studied image of being pro-West in inclination if not in actual practice. So in this quick overview of Middle East political potentates, colorful and crazy, seems to trump more low key and cunning.

Viewing the global stage, Venezuela’s ruler Hugo Chavez comes to mind for the same reasons; high profile, high octane, and high risk. Yet, Cuba’s communist ruler Raul Castro despite being a dictator is too gray and vague to be defined or chastised as was his brother Fidel. Fidel had the political persona and the image, the uniforms, trademark cigar and rhetorical fusillades against the USA. Raul is just boring but bad.

Well before the Revolt in the Desert, to paraphrase T. E. Lawrence, most readers could easily name and rate a group of global thugs ranging from Castro’s Cuba to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Still Col. Gadhafi, Libya’s loathsome leader and longtime patron saint of international terror, would have likely led the list if only for his unpredictable antics and policies. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il would come in a close second, for many of the same reasons, though his hermetically sealed regime is far more dangerous domestically and regionally than Libya could hope to be. Kim Jong-Il is unquestionably a dictator with all the media trappings, but what of the military junta running Burma? They are a dangerous lot but few would be able to name names as to who actually runs the regime.

Now go back a generation, to 1975. Well Col. Gadhafi was already in power as was Fidel Castro. Both were high profile and melodramatic to be sure.

Chairman Mao was etched in stone as the undisputed strongman ruling the People’s Republic of China. Yet Pol Pot, the ruthless Khmer Rouge ruler who killed perhaps a quarter of his fellow Cambodians rarely comes to mind. Still in the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos is still recalled as a symbol for his flashy parties, political thugery, and corruption as a fine art.

One near undisputed “classic dictator” remains Uganda’s Idi Amin, the military strongman who ran his central African country like a bizarre theme park of the macabre. Idi Amin savored pomp, ceremony, bejeweled uniforms and wanton terror. He became a near laughable symbol the tin drum dictator — that is unless of course, you were Ugandan.

Which bring us back to the Middle East and the struggle to topple the tyrant of Tripoli. NATO’s focused but fearsome air strikes have shattered the Gadhafi forces and have paved the way for significant military gains by the rebels. Now what’s the political endgame for the United States as we approach the gates of Tripoli?

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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