The myth of the modernizing dictator

By | October 22, 2018

Robert Kaplan writes:

Many Americans have an odd fascination with the idea of the reforming autocrat, the strongman who can “modernize” and lead his nation out of its backward and benighted past. This was the hope for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a hope now somewhat diminished by the hit he appears to have ordered against Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

Sympathetic Americans saw Mohammed, or MBS, as he is known, as a transformational figure seeking to reform Saudi Arabia’s one-commodity economy and to reconcile Islam and modernity. If doing so required more not less dictatorial control, if it entailed locking up not only fellow members of the royal family but also women’s rights activists, moderate religious figures and even young economists raising questions about the dubious figures contained in his “Vision 2030” program, then so be it. Only a “revolution from above” held any promise of reforming that traditionalist, hidebound society. You know — omelets, eggs.

The trope isn’t new. During the 1920s and 1930s, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and even Adolf Hitler looked to many Americans like just what their countries needed to get them into shape. During the Cold War, leaders including the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Iran’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, South Korea’s Park Chung-hee and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet took turns as the United States’ favorite “modernizing” dictators. In the post-Cold War era, the Chinese dictatorship has gained many Americans’ admiration for its smooth handling of the country’s economy. [Continue reading…]

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