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Understanding Dictatorships

Understanding Dictatorships
From Iran to Cuba, the question of legitimacy is paramount
Jon Basil Utley | September 1, 2009

Recent anti-government demonstrations in Iran have raised our
consciousness about the dangers of misunderstanding Third World
dictatorships. To most Americans, the word 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 also reinforce dictatorial power and indeed even
make governments 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

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

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 Baathist 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

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 was 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

Although effective when allied with nationalism, communism was so
inefficient and unresponsive a system in throwi
ng off European (and
American) colonialism that most regimes collapsed or adopted 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 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 . 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

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

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

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He
is a former insurance executive with AIG and a former South American
correspondent for Knight Ridder.

Understanding Dictatorships: From Iran to Cuba, the question of
legitimacy is paramount – Reason Magazine (1 September 2009)

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