The year 2011 will no doubt be remembered for many things. Tyrants will be glad that it’s over, although 2012 is so far proving no better.
The bad news began in February, when a trivial-seeming incident — the rousting of a peddler from his accustomed stand by a female police officer in a small town in central Tunisia — ignited a firestorm that toppled the country’s long-serving dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has now gone into well-deserved retirement at the favorite watering-hole of deposed despots, Saudi Arabia. Paradise has not descended on Tunisia, but considerable disorder has.
The sparks from Tunisia ignited Egypt and Libya. Like Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was a reliable American ally, a very pivotal one. For 30 years he was instrumental in thwarting a new round of Arab-Israeli warfare. He also proved very obliging in interrogating terror suspects for us, far from the beady eyes of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The world was incredulous when crowds poured into the streets of Cairo, occupied Tahrir Square and wouldn’t budge despite the polite encouragement of mounted police and rampaging camels. The Egyptian military, which had been led by Mubarak for three decades, hung him out to dry. Somewhat reluctantly, the Obama administration followed suit. Our Saudi friends were furious with us. Was this any way to reward a loyal tyrant? But perfidious America always folded when the going got tough, at least when a Democrat was in the White House.
Mubarak was put under house arrest in his Red Sea resort villa. It was a friendly invitation to join Ben Ali in Riyadh. Washington could have arranged it. Perhaps Mubarak was stubborn; perhaps his erstwhile colleagues were hedging their bets. He wound up being dragged into court on a stretcher, certainly poor thanks for bringing $30 billion into the military’s coffers over the years courtesy of Uncle Sam, not to mention giving the generals a virtual stranglehold over the Egyptian economy.
To the west, meanwhile, a tribal uprising began against Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s ruler of nearly 42 years. Gadhafi, a practiced survivor, soon squelched it and was about to seize the rebels’ last stronghold in Benghazi when Obama, prodded by a couple of deadbeat NATO politicos, decided to intervene on allegedly humanitarian grounds. The result was to protract the civil war an additional six months, leaving a good part of the country (but not its oil infrastructure) in ruins. Gadhafi, run to the ground, was torn apart by his captors and finished off with a bullet. So much for the thanks of the grateful nation he’d built from a sandbox into an oil barony.
Trouble then spread to the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis took care of protests in Bahrain, where their occupying army seemed curiously to arouse no international protest. Yemen was another matter, however, as the 33-year rule of another good American friend, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was suddenly threatened by more tribal insurrection. Saleh, who had obligingly turned his country into a shooting gallery for predator drones in search of al-Qaida operatives, was seriously wounded in a rocket attack and flown for medical treatment to — where else? — Saudi Arabia. Clinging to power by his charred fingertips, he proffered his resignation half a dozen times before executing it.Then it was Syria’s turn, where the 40-year rule of the Assad dynasty, frequently sealed in blood, faced ongoing demonstrations that have morphed into yet another civil war. Bashir al-Assad’s friends have been France, Russia and China, and they’ve done what they can to run interference for him. Even the Saudis have turned on him, though, and the revolt has spread to Damascus. Don’t count Bashir out yet; he’s a tough cookie, and his tribal and sectarian support hasn’t cracked despite military and political defections. I’d be scouting retirement communities, though.
Finally came the devastating news of the death from (presumably) natural causes of North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, scion of the world’s longest-ruling family autocracy. Here, at least, one could see the rites of mourning properly observed, as tens of thousands wept and tore their rags. They don’t make them like Kim anymore, the hole-in-one champion and captain of the Michael Jordan fan club, East Asian division. One can only hope that his son and successor, Kim Jong-un, will prove a worthy heir. He seems off to a good start, at least.
It takes a long time to grow a tyrant but only a single stroke to cut off his head. Still, there is no shortage of candidates. The work is arduous, and it isn’t a good idea to sleep too soundly or too late, but the pay and benefits are excellent, and no one’s in a hurry to leave the job — just ask Robert Mugabe. My only advice to an aspiring tyrant? Don’t let the United States befriend you. Just ask Hosni Mubarak, Manuel Noriega or Saddam Hussein.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.