Argument

Evil Ain't What It Used to Be

How bad were the tyrants that fell in 2011? And does comparing them to Hitler and Stalin do us a disservice?

It's been a bad year for dictators. It all begin in January with the Arab Spring; from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, and perhaps extending eventually to Syria, leaders who had oppressed their people have found themselves removed from power by the very subjects they once held in such contempt. And then, to top it all off, the year has ended with the death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, the most grandiose, and truly the most insane, of all the leaders on the world stage. Whatever else took place during 2011, the fact that men such as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Kim are no longer in power and able to tyrannize their people will be remembered as among the most significant.

There are, of course, lessons to be learned from all this. One of them is that these men, odious as they may be, are anything but reincarnations of Adolf Hitler. This will not stop U.S. neoconservatives, and the politicians influenced by them, from searching for other malevolent leaders on whom to pin the Nazi label. So long as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to speak publicly, they will insist that once again the world is threatened by an expansionist madman and that our only recourse is to stop him before he unleashes his forces.

But for all his dreams of glory, Kim Jong Il was no Hitler. And the decidedly ignominious, if not pathetic, way that once powerful leaders in North Africa and the Middle East lost their power should remind us it is one thing to run corrupt and oppressive regimes -- and another entirely to deploy an astonishingly powerful military apparatus in the service of world conquest and the elimination of an entire race of people. The hawkishly inclined want us to believe that the United States cannot have an enemy unless he is deemed to be a carbon copy of the bad guy against whom the good war was fought. But Hitlers, thankfully, are rare.

Our ally in that good war was another dictator, Josef Stalin, whose name is often forgotten in those parallels to our current predicament. However, the toppling of the communist regimes he formerly commanded represent another historical analogy that weighs heavily on today's world. Just as in 1989, we are frequently told, the masses are rising up and sweeping out those who had oppressed them for so long. This exuberant vision of how totalitarianism came to an end is more attractive than the exhausted invective of how appeasement brought it into being. Yet those who cheer on the protesters share with those who exaggerate the power of their oppressors the conviction that the world of yesterday offers instruction for the realities of today. A moment's reflection should indicate otherwise.

Unlike today's nasty characters, the totalitarian leaders of the 1930s and 1940s threatened our way of life for two main reasons. Nazism and communism offered an alternative to liberal democracy that, at least for a time, attracted significant numbers of people to its ranks. In addition, those in control of such regimes -- brutal tyrants at home -- were also determined expansionists abroad: Hitler had designs on as much of Europe as he could grab, and Stalin was prepared to take the rest. Were anything like totalitarianism to occur again, we should intervene wholeheartedly to stop it and exhaust every avenue to help those determined to overthrow it.

But nothing like totalitarianism can or will happen again. The dictatorships of the 1930s were the product of a series of unique historical forces coming together in remarkable fashion to make political extremism possible. There was, first and foremost, the violent stalemate known as World War I, which encouraged conspiracies and raised the possibility, in both Germany and Russia, of violent destruction. The rapid inflation of the 1920s convinced Germans that the end was nigh and the subsequent Great Depression contributed to popular unrest everywhere. Germany, like the Soviet Union, was a recently formed state with uncertain borders. Ideological opposites, Hitler and Stalin desperately needed each other: Each justified his rule by stoking fears of other totalitarian dictators in the vicinity.

For totalitarianism to reoccur, all of these forces would have to reemerge. Yet none of them is on the horizon, making a combination of all of them out of the question. For better or worse, the trench warfare characteristic of World War I has been rendered impossible by nuclear weapons. Economic tools are available to insure that hyperinflation will not occur; these days, the West faces a greater danger in deflation. Our recent Great Recession, unsettling as it is, has been stopped short of being a Great Depression. Liberal democracy is far more attractive now, especially in Europe, than it was in the 1920s, and this despite all the troubles in the eurozone. The lure of economic growth has forced undemocratic societies such as China toward a form of authoritarianism that stops far short of the terror that Hitler and Stalin wreaked on their own people.

Most important of all, the recent crop of brutal dictators, both in North Korea and in the Arab world, may have had designs on nearby countries, but they were hardly capable of, and therefore not particularly interested in, creating a "thousand-year Reich" or witnessing the triumph of world socialism.

Hitler and Stalin comparisons direct our attention to the past. However, the world then so little resembles the world of today that history is a particularly unhelpful place to look for answers. Three challenges that U.S. foreign policy will face in the future make it especially inappropriate to look back to the age of the dictators.

First, totalitarianism threatened the West with centralized and powerful states. In our time, and for the foreseeable future, it will instead be weak and failed states that are a major cause of global instability. We needed to bring Hitler down, but the task that should preoccupy us now is helping states build their authority up. This, of course, is not the case with respect to those dictators who have somehow held onto power; helping Syria's Bashar al-Assad create an even more powerful state in Syria is obviously not on the West's agenda.  But the situation is different with respect to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya now that they have thrown their autocrats out. We cannot be sure what will happen there, but surely we will want to help their new leaders avoid anarchy and chaos. In the best of all worlds, the states they build will be democratic -- but at the very least they ought to be stable. Containment was the catchword of yesterday. Capacity will be the key term of tomorrow.

Second, we need to recognize that just because tyrannical leaders are thugs at home does not mean they will be expansionists abroad. Whatever happens in North Korea, a full-fledged invasion of South Korea is all but out of the question. Qaddafi, like the deposed Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein, was a danger to those in his immediate neighborhood, but he lacked the means to conquer anyone further away. Iran supports terrorists in the Middle East and, like any rising state, seeks to increase its influence, but it is not about to swallow up any neighboring countries quite the way Hitler took over Poland and Czechoslovakia. Today's dictators are invariably sustained by local conflicts over land, resources, language, and ethnicity. They are about settling scores, not controlling the world.

Third, while welcoming the new forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, we must resist the temptation to suffocate these new movements with our efforts to help. The more evil the regime, the more compelling our obligation to come to the assistance of its victims. However, not only are the tyrants of today's world less capable of engaging in massive violence than the totalitarian dictators of days past, but the victims of their rule are also likely to see outside intervention as neocolonialist rather than humanitarian. 

Don't get me wrong: Protesters in the street deserve our support. But precisely because these people are in the street -- and not pining away in Siberian gulags or being killed in extermination camps -- they have more control over their fate than the victims of totalitarianism ever did.

How we think about evil ultimately shapes how we respond to it. From Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's denunciations of communism to the war on terror launched by President George W. Bush, U.S. leaders have shown a fatal attraction to the idea that America's enemies are the incarnation of Satan. Contemporary political and economic conditions may make it impossible for totalitarianism to reappear. But this will not stop those determined to project U.S. power abroad from seeing threats from Islamic militancy everywhere -- even in the popular movements associated with the Arab Spring -- and comparing it to fascism or communism or both. These seeming parallels will provide us with answers for organizing our national security posture that will prove unhelpful, if not dangerous.

For this reason, we ought to be encouraged not only by President Barack Obama's success in killing Osama bin Laden and helping with the removal of Qaddafi, but also by the restraint of his rhetoric in doing so. During this tumultuous year, he resisted the temptation to portray the history unfolding before us as a struggle between the forces of good, who deserve our full support, and the forces of evil, who warrant our complete condemnation. Obama seems to recognize that the world we are entering bears little resemblance to the one we have left. That's a point worth remembering as we usher in what is, in every sense of the term, a new year. The fact that some of the world's most odious dictators have left the stage in 2011 does not mean there are no longer any dictators around. The world, alas, will always contain its fair share of evil leaders. But Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Kim would not be included on any credible short list of the worst tyrants in world history. That is a fact we need to keep in mind if -- one can only hope -- others like them lose power in the coming years.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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