Authoritarian Symps

The United States has been as implicated in false-flag operations as Russian President Putin was. (Photo: www.kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons)

 (Photo: www.kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons)

In the bad old days of the Cold War, the left and the right used to play a nasty game called “Who’s Your Favorite Dictator?”

Right-wing ideologues supported authoritarian leaders like Augusto Pinochet of Chile while left-wing ideologues rhapsodized over Communist leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba. One side embraced the shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines as “our bastards” and the other side stood up for Brezhnev or Mao or Mugabe as “men of the people.”

Many people on both sides of the political spectrum refused to play this game, particularly those who prioritized human rights over what passed for realpolitik. And it wasn’t exactly a balanced tug-of-war, since the right frequently had the U.S. government pulling from the rear. But the game continued nonetheless, with both sides tying themselves into knots trying to square their support of dictators with other professed values such as democracy, self-determination, and the like.

Even when the Cold War ended and scrambled the political spectrum, this game endured.

For instance, many right wingers are delighted with the royal family in Bahrain or the House of Saud, for these are key U.S. allies in the Middle East (though some neoconservative outliers would like to see U.S. democracy promotion efforts sweep away these sheikhdoms). And if you dig hard enough, you’ll find some dinosaurs on the left who dream of Stalin’s return or continue to champion the anti-colonial credentials of an aging African revolutionary-turned-despot.

But the terms of the game have changed. The players could once be identified by their systemic ideologies — a preference for the unfettered market, for instance, or an embrace of some form of collectivism. But the free market is now everywhere, and Communism is basically nowhere (not even in China or Cuba).

So, when someone sticks up for Vladimir Putin or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Bashar al-Assad, they use a different set of arguments. Authoritarian symps on the right worry that their favorite autocrats will be replaced by anti-Western zealots. Those on the left, meanwhile, reach for the last arrow in their quiver: anti-imperialism.

What’s truly remarkable about the post-Cold War version of the old game, however, is that sometimes authoritarian symps on the left and the right end up supporting the same dictator.

Talk about crossover appeal.

Assad’s Supporters

Outside of a core band of supporters inside Syria and some instrumental support from Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad has a pretty weak fan base. He’s a colorless dictator with no particular ideology beyond regime maintenance and personal survival. Like many of his ilk, he’s orchestrated elections to give his presidency a democratic veneer.

He has only one argument that convinces people both inside and outside his country of his worthiness: après moi, le deluge. This deluge, the waters of which have already spread across parts of the country, could come in different forms: al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the newly formed Army of Conquest, etc.

For this reason, it’s no surprise that Assad has the support of Iran (fearful of Sunni militancy), Russia (fearful of Islamic militancy), and some Kissinger acolytes (fearful of any militancy but also chaos more generally) in the United States.

Assad also comes out of a particular political milieu — the Baathist tradition — that has more than a tinge of fascism to its makeup. It’s no surprise then that neo-fascists in Europe and the United States — the National Front in France, the British National Party, Golden Dawn and Black Lily in Greece, David Duke in the United States — support the man. They think Assad is standing up to the unholy trinity of Zionists, radical Islam, and the United States.

What is surprising, however, are the leftists who are attracted to Assad. And they support Assad for basically the same reasons: his willingness to stand up to the United States and other world powers. As one commenter on my last World Beat column argued, “Thank God, Syria has a young, intelligent and dynamic leader. Without him, the country and its institutions would have collapse [sic] under the compounded attacks from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and the underhanded USA.”

The argument could be made that Syria is only on the verge of collapse because of Assad and his refusal to make a deal with his initially non-violent opposition. But I’m more interested in the anti-imperial argument.

Assad is not interested in standing up to the United States — or to Israel, for that matter. He’d make an accommodation with both countries if it meant that he could remain in power — just as his father made deals with both Israel and the United States, such as the 1974 disengagement agreement. Syria’s current leader would welcome an all-in fight against the Islamic State.

Because his anti-imperial allegiances are so flimsy, Assad hasn’t attracted huge enthusiasm on the left. Not so for Russia’s Putin, who has a much more visible fan club.

In Praise of Putinism

When the Nazis pressed Stalin’s back against the wall of the Kremlin in World War II, the Soviet leader fought back with a famous speech on November 7. It was the 24th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, so Stalin made the requisite references to the “banner of Lenin.” But he knew that the revolutionary fervor of Russians was by that point weak at best. He relied on a more tried-and-true tactic: an appeal to defend the Motherland and a lineage of imperial leaders like Alexander Nevsky and Dmitry Donskoi. With German soldiers at the very gates of the city, Stalin fell back on Russian nationalism.

Vladimir Putin is no Stalin, but he’s resorted to a similar ploy.

Putin is a product of the Soviet system, a KGB operative from long back who was stationed in East Germany in 1989 and helped destroy Soviet intelligence material to keep it out of the hands of demonstrators. Putin has carefully risen through the new post-Soviet system, cultivating elite contacts in politics and the business world. His appeal inside Russia stems from the long-standing attraction many Russians have for “iron fist” politics, the lucky circumstance that his political rise coincided with a spike in oil and gas prices, and a popular and legitimate grievance that the international community has treated Russia as a loser.

When Putin argues in favor of incorporating Crimea or the creation of Novorossiya encompassing parts of eastern Ukraine, he doesn’t talk about a resurrected Soviet Union. He couches his phrases in traditional Russian nationalism: the glories of Russian history, the importance of Russian language and culture. He’s set his sights lower, nationalist rather than internationalist. The Soviet era, meanwhile, becomes only one part of the grand historical procession from tsars to commissars to TV stars, culminating in Putin himself.

Putin has deeply conservative instincts. The European far right supports him for the same reason they approve of Assad. He is a bulwark against Islam. On top of that, he has no enthusiasm for the European Union. Little in his project should appeal to the left. And yet, because of a misconception that Putin is somehow balancing American hegemony, some elements of the left have rallied around him.

But Putin is miscast as an anti-imperialist. He doesn’t care about the extension of U.S. power in the world except where it constrains his own ambitions, which are limited to the Russian near abroad and a few locations beyond (such as a military base in Syria).

“For the American left, of course for them only American imperialism exists, yes? I can’t understand it,” left-wing Russian activist Ilya Budraitkis complained to Charles Davis in Salon. “In Russia, there are a lot of leftists who also believe that Russia is the main evil in the world, it’s a reactionary empire, and it should be destroyed. Or, at the same time, you have a lot of leftists who believe somehow Russia is resisting American imperialism [and] who support these ‘republics’ in the East of Ukraine.”

As Budraitkis points out, imperialism can come in a variety of flavors, not just American vanilla.

An Axis of Illiberalism

In a recent piece at TomDispatch, I argue that a new kind of political hybrid has emerged as the dominant player in the global arena: market authoritarianism.

It’s what I call “despotism with a corporate face and cosmetic democracy,” and you can find it in Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, and al-Sisi’s Egypt, among other places. “A new axis of illiberalism might one day connect Beijing to Moscow, Hungary, and possibly beyond like a new trans-Siberian express,” I write.

Aligned with this unharmonic convergence toward illiberalism, the authoritarian symps and their assorted fellow travelers welcome how virile and decisive the new despots are: Putin without a shirt, Xi creating a new global financial infrastructure seemingly ex nihilo, Assad crushing Islamic State insurgents (along with so many others). No messy democracy for them or the niceties of human rights observance. They too secretly pine for the “iron fist” even if it what they explicitly denounce is the iron fist of others (Obama, Netanyahu, Petro Poroshenko, and so on). The authoritarian symps desperately crave a “bastard” of their own.

In the decades following the end of the Cold War, many of those who advocated for U.S. military intervention overseas couched their justifications in the language of human rights. This became the “humanitarian intervention” school. After the failures of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, and others — which became and continue to be humanitarian disasters — this school has lost most of its disciples (for instance, see David Rieff’s cogent critique).

We should be equally wary of the flip side: the non-humanitarian non-interventionists. These are the authoritarian symps, the ones who avert their eyes from human rights and humanitarian disasters on the assumption that the West (United States, Europe) is impossibly compromised by its past (colonialism, war, empire). By all means we should critique the politics, past and present, of the Western powers. And we should praise efforts to avoid wars and end historic animosities with Iran, Cuba, Russia, and other countries. But that doesn’t absolve Putin, Castro, Khamenei, Assad, and others from their violation of international norms.

Above all, we should beware the siren songs of the authoritarian symps of both the right and the left — especially when they are singing in unison.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Michael Hamrin

    I have been a fan of Tom Dispatch for a long time. I think that I have the same birthday and age as Tom. And I was also an early supporter of Chalmers Johnson (from the old Berkeley days), but I really must take exception to your bashing of the likes of Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad. While they are all autocrats to be sure they came to power as a necessary anti-dote to challenge Washingtonian dominion. The concept of rule of ballot box is a pipe dream. Money and military backing is the rule of the day. Therefore, you must take into account the “lesser of two evils”. This is especially true of Fidel Castro, who has done much good in the world — especially in the medical field. He is also a veritable prognosticator. Putin’s response to Yankee skullduggery should be recognized as necessary and Assad is primarily a less-than-charismatic defender of his family lineage. He cannot simply capitulate to take-over plots of Yankee scheming.

    • Connors

      Even if one accepts the false, dismal notion that we should all choose between the ‘lesser of two evils’ on the world stage, then surely we’d have to pick Obama over Putin and Assad. Despite all of Obama’s faults, he’s far more progressive than the others. (Castro is a different matter.) And the US, despite the horrendous inequalities, racism etc., is still objectively ‘better’ on those fronts than Russia. The US has a much higher standard of living, is much freer, and is in every sense a much better place to live.

      • FJMunley

        Choosing Obama over Putin is on the radar? Not at all. I chose Obama warts and all, but I’m not going to rubber-stamp the decades-old aggression of the US against the former USSR and the grievous anti-Russian moves of the EU and US regarding Ukarine. That decades-old aggression, economic as well as military, is a most shameful episode in our history. I despise Putin’s domestic policies, but I don’t vote or live there. I do what I can to promote recognition of the security interests and “red lines” of all nation-states, including Russia. It’s all about non-intervention or the violation of it. And there the US is the world’s bully.

        • Connors

          I don’t accept a ‘choice’ between Obama and Putin either, but Michael Hamrin’s defense of Putin as ‘antidote’ to the West is that Putin is the lesser of two evils. My point is that Putin isn’t even that: living under the Russian empire is even worse than living under the US empire.

          If you look at aggression and intervention in Eastern Europe, Russia’s record over the last 70 years is significantly worse there than the US’s. After occupying satellite states and installing grim, horrid ‘communist’ governments, Russia continues to harass and subjugate its neighbors – this time, principally former republics like Ukraine. If you’re such a non-interventionist, then why on earth do you defend Russian aggression?

          Moreover, recognizing the ‘security interests’ of nation-states is one stop short of recognizing Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ in the region, aka, regional imperial interests. If that’s your position – that we should respect regional powers and their security interests – fine, but it’s not left position. Basically, it’s impossible to distinguish your view from that of the right wing isolationists.

          • FJMunley

            “Who Started It?” is a question that should be asked. The US has been provoking Russia since the collapse of the USSR with gratuitous expansion of NATO (which should have been disbanded after the USSR collapse) and the threat to deploy anti-missile missiles next to Russia’s border (as if G.W. Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty wasn’t enough–a treaty that lent great stability to the very dangerous nuclear stand-off during the Cold War), How could anybody think Russia would stand by as a coup is carried out against a legally-elected government in Ukraine (a whole lot we care about “democracy”) and see its strategically vital naval base in Crimea, which it has had for several hundred years, and which is its only warm-water port, go with Victoria Nuland’s darling “Yats” and the coup government he now leads?
            Human rights are important, but the cause for them has become in certain circles an “ideology” in itself, as some of John Feffer’s posts prove. “Oh, there’s a bad guy–let’s change his government by knocking him off,” as happened with ruinous consequences in Libya. And don’t respond that I or anyone with my views “liked” Kaddafi. It happened in Iraq too, with the help of the human rights ideologues. There’s no substitute for thinking through consequences very carefully in spite of our impulses to “stop the bad guy.”

          • Connors

            You’re repeating a lot of platitudes one reads in nominally left websites like Counterpunch and Consortium News – two sites that have value on many issues but have no expertise on Russia and frankly publish a lot of hysterical and one-sided nonsense.

            Re NATO expansion, what you ignore is the fact that those countries near Russia, such as the Baltic states, who joined NATO did so voluntarily – *specifically because they still felt threatened by Russia*. They were not forced to join but had serious concerns about Russian revanchism, and as it turns out, they were right! How can you blame them for wanting protection, for not wanting a repeat of Russian annexation?

            I also used to buy that line, ‘well, since the Cold War is over, shouldn’t NATO be disbanded?’ Very simplistic thinking considering how easy it was for the Cold War to be re-ignited. And if you know anything about the history of Russian imperialism, it’s no surprise that here they are again trying to dominate and subjugate neighboring peoples.

            Again, your position is indistinguishable from Pat Buchanan’s. By defending the ‘legally elected’ but incredibly corrupt and wretched Yanukovych government you deny a popular uprising and the right of revolution, which all people have. Your stance is basically reactionary. So if you want to play that game, by all means, but stop trying to represent yourself as a leftist.

          • FJMunley

            Ah, the magic of the self-fulfilling prophesy. Provoke Russia and then when they react, say “Russia is revanchist.” Russia disbanded the Warsaw Pact. Russia was minding its own business. You cannot ignore the fact that the US provoked Russia. And you have no answer for the provocation. As for your name-calling, I will not bother responding except to ask: how “leftist” is it to excuse the US’s incessant provocations?
            Yanukovych was, of course, corrupt, as Tymoshenko and other Ukrainian oligarchs were and as the current leader is. You’re setting up one straw man after another.

          • Connors

            I’m not ignoring it, I’m denying it the ‘provocation’ charge, which is straight out of Putin’s mouth, btw, not yours. Nothing the US did justifies Russia’s subjugation of neighboring peoples. Just because the Warsaw Pact fell apart (it’s not as if the USSR voluntarily let it go) doesn’t mean Russia wasn’t always trying to hold on to as much former Soviet territory as possible. Take the brutal war in Chechnya – Russian just couldn’t let it go. So, instead, they’ve set up a client regime and given power to one of the most frightening leaders in recent memory (Kadyrov).

            I’m not fan of the current Ukrainian gov, but it’s objectively better than Yanukovych’s. The majority of people living in Crimea are pro-Russia, but it doesn’t change the fact that Russia *gave* Crimea to Ukraine in ’54, and what do we call it when someone gives and then tries to take back? Yes, Russia had posession of Crimea for about 150 years before then, but guess what? They annexed it back then and dispossesed the native Tatars. So if you want to talk about who has the right to it, surely, as even Lukashenko noted, the Tatars have the best claim.

          • FJMunley

            Trying to draw moral distinctions between powerful national security states is hopeless. As the saying goes, nation-states have interests, not friends. Two great war crimes in the 21st Century are the destruction of Grozny by Russia and of Falluja by the US. (There are others, of course, involving other countries.) Nevertheless, an important criterion in judging nation-state behavior is compliance with the “Live and Let Live” dictum. Putin didn’t make up the provocation charge; NATO expansion was bitterly opposed (to no avail) by Yeltsin during the Clinton years.
            As for national borders, the US loves to preach about the sanctity of borders and sovereignty except when it doesn’t like it, as in the former Yugoslavia. National borders are either a result of former colonialist rule, or established by raw force (which was the ugly case with the US’s borders). Strange, isn’t it, that the leaders of de-colonized countries hold on fast to the borders their former masters slapped on them. Why? Because it’s turf, and all national leaders operate via the dicta of power politics, especially turf control, since international law is largely toothless.
            “Who Started It?” Listen to the US MSM and you get the impression that the proximate cause of the Ukraine crisis was Russia’s “takeover” of Crimea. The proximate cause was in fact the EU’s Fall 2013 insistence that Ukraine had to have an exclusive trade agreement with the EU, excluding Russia. The EU has now backed off that major blunder. The failure of the MSM to adequately convey the truth instead of nationalist propaganda fatally weakens the ability of a mass democracy to seriously question and effectively stymie government aggressiveness. Look at the Iraq war!
            I said it before and I repeat: “Who Started It?” The US did, with its nutty promotion of extreme free market economics in Russia which created its oligarchs, plus all the other provocations I mentioned, provocations that were and are gratuitous in the extreme.

      • KrystaDRooks

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