Don’t Admire the Big Man

Admiration for strongmen reveals an unhealthy desire to be led and a misjudgment of sound politics.

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Surprisingly many Westerners admire the authoritarian leaders of other states. They should be careful what they wish for.

Accepting dictators as a necessary evil in the absence of an immediate alternative is one thing. Respecting them for what they are is quite another.

Comedian Jon Stewart did a fine job at ridiculing American rightwingers’ admiration for foreign strongmen on The Daily Show Tuesday night, contrasting their fawning praise of Jordan’s king, Abdullah, Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin with their indignation whenever their own president, Barack Obama, seems to overstep the constitutional boundaries of his office.

But there is more at play here than hypocrisy. It’s not just that those demanding “strong leadership” would — rightly — complain when it is exerted at home; it’s that their protestations reveal an unhealthy desire to be led and a misjudgment of what makes a political system sound.

A psychologist might have more to say about the former but the fact that it is evidently still widespread in Western societies is worrisome if only because those very societies have made the most progress in empowering the individual.

A society in which citizens are informed and willing to take responsibility for their own lives doesn’t need “strong leadership.” It needs a leadership that respects personal autonomy and privacy. Strongmen never do. They impose their values on others, mistrust citizens (and businesses) to make wise decisions and snoop into people’s personal lives to see if they aren’t secretly insubordinate.

It may be unfair to put King Abdullah in this category but Sisi and Putin clearly belong here. It’s clear from when Sisi told Der Spiegel this week that without him, Egypt would have slid into civil war and “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would have died.” It’s clear from when Putin warned in 2012 that ethnic tensions would have torn Russia apart if it weren’t for him. These men believe they’re the only ones who can save their otherwise helpless people — a delusion that has marked dictators everywhere.

If a country’s stability indeed hinges on the ability of one man, it has a big problem. And that is the second thing Sisi’s and Putin’s admirers in the West fail to recognize. One-man rule may offer the mirage of stability but it is always structurally rotten. What Egypt and Russia need is not “strong leadership” but a strong citizenry. They need a civil society that can nurture critical and informed citizens. They need bureaucrats who are competent and politicians who are accountable. They need a political system that can channel grievances and settle disputes peacefully. And they could do with more entrepreneurs who can create jobs independently of the state.

This doesn’t have to look like liberal democracy in the West. But if Egypt and Russia and countries like it are to escape from corruption, economic malaise, personal oppression and political ineptitude, they can’t continue to rely on “big men” who have so often failed them in the past.

What makes even less sense is for Westerners, who already have all the things so many other countries need, to reject their own traditions of representative democracy and rule of law and call in a strongman instead.

Sure, Western leaders can be feeble. So would we be better off giving them the power to act on their every whim? Western leaders can be incompetent as well. But at least we can vote them out.

Given the choice between the spectacle of compromising, fudging and trepidation that we call politics in the West and the jailing — or worse — of dissidents, the expropriation of private businesses and the invasion of other countries supposedly strong leaders in Egypt and Russia are responsible for, I know which I’d prefer.

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