Why are we seduced by dictators?
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
The brutal murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was the lead story in the United States last week. While the Saudi government now claims that Kashoggi was killed unintentionally in a fist fight, this dubious account follows mounting evidence from Turkey and un-named U.S. intelligence officials that the journalist was murdered on the orders of Saudi strongman Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince.
This news has prompted American journalists to ask how the Trump administration could have been so seduced by the crown prince, known by his initials MBS. Until his murder, Kashoggi was one of the only journalists based in the United States reporting on the authoritarian turn in Saudi Arabia under MBS, including disappearances and imprisonments under a new anti-terrorism law, a sweeping crackdown on Saudi women demanding greater rights, and indiscriminate bombing by Saudi fighter jets of civilians in the civil war in neighboring Yemen.
What most Americans saw instead was a telegenic and cosmopolitan young leader who promised modernization of the Saudi economy under his “Vision 2030” plan. Unlike the seemingly medieval Saudi leaders before him, MBS was cool, boasting a close friendship with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and elites in Hollywood and Manhattan.
This was not the first time that leaders in democracies have been seduced by the cosmopolitan heir of a hereditary dictatorship who then turn out to be even more brutal than their father. A little over a decade ago, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was being hailed as a transformational leader who would bring his nation out of the reactionary and hostile era of his own father, Hafez al-Assad.
Like MBS, the younger Assad was not the intended heir to the throne (his brother died in a car crash) and instead had been studying ophthalmology in London.
His beautiful wife, Asma al Assad, was raised in London by Syrian parents with degrees from King’s College in computer science and French literature. She was featured on the cover of European Women’s magazines where she described her commitment to social causes within Syria. The young Assads were so compelling that House Leader Nancy Pelosi defied the wishes of the Bush administration in April 2007 and visited Damascus to encourage greater engagement with Syria based on the hope that the new leader was eager to modernize his country and wean it from its dependence on Iran and hostility towards the United States and Israel.
But the Assads turned out to be a cruel mirage. Four months after Pelosi’s visit, Israeli Air Force jets bombed a secret nuclear reactor in Syria that was being built with North Korean help for the purpose of manufacturing nuclear weapons. As Syrian rebels later began winning tactical victories against Assad’s forces, his regime launched chemical weapons attacks against heavily populated areas under rebel control, causing the agonizing death of innocent women and children.
Despite warnings from President Barack Obama and cruise missile attacks by the Trump administration, Assad continued using chemical weapons — most recently to wipe out civilians hiding in basements in the final rebel stronghold city of Douma in April of this year. By any measure, the internationally-educated and charming Assad has presided over far greater cruelties against the Syrian people than his brutal father ever did.
Which raises the obvious case of Kim Jong-un. Like MBS and the younger Assad, Kim was educated in the West. Like Assad, he has a charming and beautiful wife in Ri Sol-ju. Like both MBS and Assad, he has promised economic modernization under his own vague slogan of Byongjin. Like MBS and Bashir al-Assad, he was not intended to become the heir to his dynasty, making his ascent to power seem all the more fortuitous. Like MBS and Assad, he made spontaneous appearances in public and smiled alongside world leaders, in contrast to his dark and anarchic father.
And like MBS and Assad, Kim Jong-un has thus far proven more cruel and dangerous than his father. Kim Jong-un was given nominal command of the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyongdo in 2010. He then executed his own uncle, Chang Seong-taek, upon assuming power. He has already tortured and executed many more of his leading generals than Kim Jong-il did. He used VX nerve agent to assassinate his own half-brother in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. And he has conducted more frequent and dangerous nuclear and missile tests than his father and grandfather combined. Yet despite all this, he has charmed the media even more effectively than Assad or MBS ever did.
Why are we so easily seduced? First, we live in an era where visual media allows charismatic personalities to blur the jarring reality of state-ordered murder and nuclear proliferation. Second, we have trouble believing that leaders who experienced the comforts and freedoms of our open societies could possibly want anything different for their own.
And third, we believe — rightly for the most part — in human progress. When we see someone new and cosmopolitan after decades of grey Stalinist or medieval leaders, we think we see the change agent who will bring countries to the right side of history.
The fact is, however, that no bloodline heir to a dynastic dictatorship in the modern era has ever liberalized their society or reduced the threat of violence against their neighbors or their own people. To the contrary, they have been more repressive and more dangerous than their fathers. This does not mean that engagement with North Korea should be abandoned (or that the United States can easily afford to cut off Saudi Arabia). But it should serve as yet another healthy dose of skepticism as we seek a diplomatic path forward with Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un’s different image is intriguing, but it is his actions that will matter.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 26, Page 33