As we watch the Syrian dictator struggle to survive, and the Egyptian would-be dictator run from an angry mob, and as we think back to the many fallen dictators of the recent past – Gorbachev, Ceausescu, Pinochet, and their numerous ilk– we might well ask ourselves two questions:
Why does that job look so good?
And why do so many intellectuals cozy up to the dictators?
Machiavelli knew that tyrannies were the most unstable form of government, while republics were the longest-lived. Anyone who has lived through this age of Revolution must be impressed with the spectacular number of fallen tyrants. But most leaders know less and less history, and Machiavelli died a long time ago, so dictators continue to exercise a certain fascination. They inspire mass movements and strike down their enemies with abandon. Democratic political leaders envy them, because the tyrants can just DO things; they don’t have to negotiate, wheel and deal, split the differences, or look for middle ground. They don’t have to run for reelection. They wave their scepter, and that’s that. Until the scepter doesn’t work any more…
Tyrants fall at a much faster rate, and usually in a much less pleasant manner, than democratic leaders. George W. Bush did not end up hiding in a hole in the ground like Saddam Hussein, and Nicolas Sarkozy was not raped and slaughtered as Muammar Qaddafi was. To be sure, the French nation did not cry oceans of tears for Sarkozy, as the Russians did for Stalin, but the French Republic still stands, while the Soviet Union has been dumped in history’s dustbin.
Maybe it is not altogether good to be king, although the power to just DO things sure looks good to lots of folks in the free worlds. Think back a few years, when the Israelis were turning over territory to the likes of Yasir Arafat. At the time, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres convinced themselves that things would now go better in Palestine because the new rulers would not have to worry about legal niceties or international criticism for ugly human rights violations. President Obama is sometimes given to complaining about the existence of a political opposition to his designs, and you can be sure that tyrant envy seizes democratic leaders everywhere, even if only momentarily.
The same sort of frustration that stimulates tyrant envy in democratic leaders also provokes it in many intellectuals. Political leaders hate having to run for office all the time, submitting themselves to the vagaries of an electorate that the politicians often despise. Intellectuals likewise hate having to compete in a marketplace to sell books, articles, and speeches to audiences the intellectuals often despise. How much better it would be to sit at the right hand of the prince than to compete with the hundreds of writers who submit op-eds for two or three slots in the Wall Street Journal every day! And if you get that job as consigliere to the capo, you get to see your ideas put into effect quickly, and without that messy process of having to convince all those unwashed people to appreciate your brilliance. You only need one appreciative fan.
No surprise, then, that intellectuals find it so easy to appreciate the qualities of the tyrants. Watching the convulsions of Syria today reminds us that not so long ago an intellectual as thoughtful and brilliant as Henry Kissinger could pronounce Hafez Assad “the most interesting man in the Middle East.” At a lower level of intellectual prowess, Thomas Friedman more recently permitted himself the observation that the Chinese government often seems to work a lot better than our own messy democracy. One heard similar remarks about the presumed superiority of the tightly organized Japanese industrial/political system back in the 80s, when it was widely believed that Japan was the next Big Thing. After all, they bought Pebble Beach, didn’t they?
Machiavelli, despite his reputation, knew better. His own political success was not the result of the favors of tyrants, but rather of his work for the Florentine Republic. When the Medicis conquered the city, he was jailed and tortured, then exiled. It was then that he wrote The Prince, and he dedicated it to the Medici of the moment.
But then, he needed a job, and the government controlled the sort of job for which he was qualified.