Good Dictators?



Baba Galleh JallowKaplanBob_LowRes_WEB_PT_2011By Baba G. Jallow, Creighton University

In a strange piece published on the Stratfor website on October 16, 2013, Robert D. Kaplan tried to make a case that not all dictatorships are bad; that there are in fact “good” dictators. Why? Because some dictators, while having murdered tens of thousands of their own people through tortures, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and mass massacres, still managed to create a degree of economic prosperity for their countries. Mr. Kaplan makes the case that calling all dictators dictators over-simplifies complex realities; he confidently argues that some dictators are actually good dictators. But they are still dictators right, Mr. Kaplan? And to repeat the question you posed and that serves as the title of your piece: what is a dictator? Well, here’s our answer: a dictator is a tyrannical ruler who tortures and kills his own people, causes untold misery to millions of innocent men, women and children, and practically assumes ownership of his country to the exclusion of everyone else. A dictator is a criminal in power who hijacks entire populations and clings on to power for as long as he can. A dictator, in short, is evil incarnate; or to put it in more straightforward terms: a dictator is a personification of evil.

Rationalizing dictatorship may be motivated by good intentions, but never comes out right in spite of its author’s good intentions. Robert Kaplan may not mean any harm in asking and trying to answer the question, what is a dictator? But he certainly misses the point of dictatorship, which is that no one has a right to be a dictator and that the achievements of dictators like Pinochet and others of his ilk are not a necessary consequence of their being dictators, but a combination of enabling factors that would have produced the same effects in the absence of dictatorship within that particular spatial and temporal context. The idea of “good dictatorship” is a serious contradiction in terms and may not be legitimately justified by any stretch of the imagination.

Clearly, Mr. Kaplan measures the wellbeing of the societies whose dictators he praises purely in terms of material welfare, the reduction of poverty levels, economic growth, and related indices highlighted by international financial institutions. Against these material indices of welfare are pitted the millions of lives lost by fiat of brutal tyrants like Pinochet in Chile. Against these material indices are pitted thousands of cases of unlawful arrest and torture of innocent citizens who dared to question the actions of their leaders in countries under Kaplan’s “good” dictators.   Against these material indices are pitted the sad fact that potentially world-saving creative energies have been and continues to be strangled to death under so-called “good” dictators. Against these material indices are pitted the fact that the fate and futures of millions of innocent men, women, children and unborn generations have been and continue to be mortgaged in the name of “good” dictatorship. Dictatorship is never good Mr. Kaplan, especially, which is why it is inconceivable in western parts of the world.

Perhaps Mr. Kaplan should ask himself whether he would rather have a good dictator than a bad accountable president in his own country. Would Mr. Kaplan exchange his freedom of expression and of association with all the wealth in the world? Would Mr. Kaplan surrender his right to criticize his government and cast his vote for a candidate of his choice in free and fair elections for all the money in the world? How would Mr. Kaplan feel about being arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and jailed without charges or trial for merely disagreeing with the government of his own country? How would Mr. Kaplan feel if the president of the United States or the British Prime Minister decided that he would no longer respect presidential term limits, that he would not step down from office, and that he would govern his country for as long as he is alive? Would he still call them good dictators because of the material prosperity of their countries?

No amount of do-goodism justifies political tyranny, Mr. Kaplan. No amount of Chinese material prosperity justifies the massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Calling dictators what they are is not an over simplification of complex realities. It is as simple as calling Mr. Kaplan Mr. Kaplan. One cannot but agree with Terri Price and scholars of ethical leadership that leaders do not and cannot have the moral authority to break the rules that govern their status as leaders. Dictators habitually insult the intelligence of their people by stamping their feet upon constitutional provisions, by assuming a monopoly on truth and the right to express their opinions on matters that are the collective concern of all citizens of their countries. Their supposed economic achievements pale in significance compared to the harm they inflict on their countries and peoples. And when one day their dictatorship ends – as it surely must – whatever material success they scored might be shattered by the storm that generally follows upon the heel of an enforced peace of the iron grid. Yes we know what dictatorship is, Mr. Kaplan: it is the worst form of government the world has ever known and will ever know; and it can never be justified by the greatest of economic miracles, especially since these economic miracles happen in spite of rather than because of dictatorship.


Link to Kaplan’s article:


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