As the carnage in Gaza escalated in January, about the most popular foreign leader in the region was the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. We might be able to understand the Arab delight when Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador from his country (as later did his Bolivian counterpart, Juan Evo Morales), but less understandable was why so many Arabs ignored that Chavez is a populist autocrat who not long ago tried to change his country’s constitution to extend his mandate.
The question might seem disingenuous. The obvious answer is that Arabs don’t much care about what Chavez does at home, as long as he stands as a symbol for those issues the peoples of the Middle East consider important: uneasiness with Western capitalism, suspicion of globalization, hostility toward the United States and Israel, and a taste for radical behavior, or at least what can be sold as such abroad. Fair enough. However, the too- frequent Arab attraction to foreign autocrats tells us a great deal about the Arab world itself.
Here we have the region that perhaps most suffers from despotism, that is the most in need of open societies, term-limits on leaders, and lucid alternatives to the visceral aggression underlining populist behavior, and yet whenever its peoples look overseas, they tend to embrace those leaders who in most ways duplicate the behavior of their own oppressors. Instead of a capitalist culture of free markets and free minds, many Arabs will go for the radically chic choice of applauding dictators who irk the West. This was especially visible throughout the Cold War. The notion that America was more popular at the time than it was under George W. Bush is only true in relative terms. Even if America is deeply disliked today, it was never particularly liked two, three, and four decades ago, when Arabs were moved much more by the likes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, or by the bevy of post-Stalin Soviet leaders from Nikita Khrushchev to Leonid Brezhnev, then they were moved by the generally duller representatives of Western democracies.
Defenders would say this didn’t diminish the fact that, for many Arabs, such approval was mostly related to parochial concerns. The enemy was Israel between the 1950s and the 1990s, so it was natural to lean in the direction of those who were most antagonistic to Israel’s leading sponsor after the 1960s: the United States. Perhaps, but if that was the case, then this was a remarkable example of how so many people in the Middle East allow their agendas to be shaped by what they are against, rather than what they are for. And this may be one explanation, among others, for why the region ends up being so tolerant of its foul regimes. This was certainly true in Iraq. That the US was responsible for a bloody war and its aftermath is entirely possible. That this could have been avoided had the Bush administration made less of a mess of its postwar policies cannot be denied. But the removal of Saddam was, in and of itself, a necessary step toward any realistic chance of achieving a democratic Iraqi future.
That future may come or it may not come, but under no circumstances could it come while Saddam Hussein was in power. Yet how many Arabs would admit this is true? A tiny minority. For over two decades, since the start of the war against Iran, Saddam was a hero to the Arabs. And if they could once laud the “anti-colonial” posturing of the mad Idi Amin Dada, for example, then we know why they had no problem with a Saddam Hussein. By the same token, if they could stomach a Hafez Assad or a Moammar al-Qadhafi, there was no reason for them not to look with sympathy on places like North Korea and North Vietnam, or to list Chavez today as their favorite foreign leader.
The writers Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit put their finger on the problem in their essay ‘Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies’. They wrote of liberal civilization that “[i]t is a threat because its promises of material comfort, individual freedom, and the dignity of unexceptional lives deflate all utopian pretensions.”
Indeed, the populist autocrat has in him the promise and excitement of the boldly unachievable. Many Arabs may never have been convinced that Brezhnev would bring on a bright millennium of justice, even though they sided with the Soviet Union in his day. Yet, somehow they could convince themselves that Castro would move us all closer to it, or Ho Chi Minh, or Chavez today. These all seem to be men of which dreams are made, charismatic men, though their legacies have often been nightmares. The path to utopia is usually paved with repression.
It’s a pity that so many Arabs should still believe in false utopias, but also a sign that when it comes to their own polities, they have nothing to believe in at all.