Tyranny’s gradations

There’s a funny story behind the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, Waller Newell suggested at the Heritage Foundation on Friday.  A suitcase packed with explosives had been placed under his table, killing several of his top advisors. Stumbling out of the conference room unharmed, his clothes tattered, Hitler reportedly said “That’s it. No more mister nice guy.”

Because tyrants can be almost comically grotesque, they make for easy targets of humor and ridicule. At bottom, however, they are twisted and cruel, and should be opposed by anyone who supports democracy and freedom. Right?

Sometimes, Newell said, the choice is not between democracy and tyranny. It is between gradations of despotism. Americans would do well to consider if, by overthrowing one dictator, an even worse tyrant is waiting in the wings.

Americans believe that inside every Egyptian or Iraqi, a little Tocquevillian democrat is waiting to emerge. Even today, many still cling to the idea that all people secretly desire to live under the banner of liberal democracy. But what if the choice is not really between tyranny and democracy, but different types of tyranny? Newell explores this question in his new book, Tyranny: A New Interpretation.

Tyrants can be divided into three categories. The first is the “garden-variety tyrant.” These are men who dispose of entire countries for their own amusement. They rule for their own profit, without regard to their people. Nero, Mubarak, Gaddafi are a few examples.

He called second type the “tyrant as reformer.” Like the first category, these men seek to amass wealth, but they are also interested in state building. They embark on large-scale projects of public renewal. They are more restrained in their personal lives and in their cruelty. These so-called “benevolent despots” include Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Ataturk.

The final, and most dangerous, type is the millenarian. These men want to destroy the social order completely and rebuild it according to their collectivist, utopian vision. Examples include Stalin, Robespierre, Hitler, and today’s jihadists. They argue that the suffering of thousands of men is justified when weighed against the future happiness of millions. The Ba’athists attempted to mimic this type, but most were in fact garden-variety tyrants. The genuine millenarian tyrant wants to destroy today’s society to bring about communism, the thousand-year Reich, or a global caliphate.

The French and Iranian Revolutions began as reformist movements, but were quickly hijacked by authoritarian factions. Many new rulers, instead of transforming into democrats, will simply end up oppressing those who oppressed them. Former Egyptian president Morsi’s government was headed in this direction. Newell described Morsi’s ascent to power as a legal, Islamicizing coup, adding that al Sisi’s government is marginally preferable.

Like most Americans, Newell said he is tempted to side with Iran against ISIS in Iraq, or with the Syrian rebels against Assad. However, he cautioned against American military involvement in any of these conflicts. The Sunni and Shi’a were once united by mutual hatred for Israel and the United States. American involvement in the Syrian conflict could allow a sectarian alliance to resurface. He suggested that the recent kidnappings of three Israeli teens was an attempt by Iranian-led groups to change the subject.

An independent Kurdistan could be one of the few tangible positive consequences of the US invasion of Iraq. The Kurds tend to be friendly towards the US and Israel. Very few of them support the installation of a global caliphate.

The fall of the Soviet Union was supposed to herald the end of tyranny and usher in a new era of democracy. In fact, it unleashed a Pandora’s box of tribalism and religious warfare. Most terrorists, Newell argued, are simply tyrants in waiting. Should we undermine dictators who aren’t declared enemies of the United States, when an even worse tyrant might be waiting to take his place?

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