Bret Stephens: The Rise of Dictatorship Incorporated


A member of the Russian military police stood guard between portraits of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, right, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia outside a post on the outskirts of Damascus.CreditLouai Beshara/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It really is an axis of evil.

This week, The Times reported that United Nations investigators have compiled a more-than-200-page dossier containing extensive evidence of North Korea’s supply of potential chemical weapons components and ballistic missile parts to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Pyongyang had previously tried to furnish Assad with a nuclear reactor, until the Israelis destroyed it in a 2007 airstrike.

Pyongyang isn’t Damascus’s only helper. Last November, Moscow — which supplies Assad with an air force to bombard his own people — wielded its 10th and 11th vetoes in defense of the Syrian government at the U.N. Security Council to scupper a separate panel of experts charged with investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Beijing has used its own veto to help Assad on six occasions.

Then there’s Iran, which has been invested in Assad’s survival from the beginning of the uprising against him in 2011. Through Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, Tehran has provided Assad with his most effective and merciless ground troops.

Why should a Shiite theocrat, a Russian kleptocrat, a Korean gourmand and a Chinese son of heaven unite so openly to rescue a foul and feeble Baathist dictatorship?

The question isn’t asked often enough. None of them shares a border, a language, a religion, or a political ideology with Assad. And each has paid a price for meddling.

Iran has lost some 500 troops, including at least 16 generals, fighting in Syria since 2012, according to the Atlantic Council’s Ali Alfoneh, while suffering a popular backlash back home against its Syria policy. Russia may have lost dozens of its mercenaries in a humiliating recent encounter with American forces near the Euphrates. And whatever else Kim Jong-un is doing in Syria, he probably isn’t getting rich from the trade.

Then again, there are interests that go beyond lives and money. Some of these are relatively narrow. Iran wants to maintain the so-called Shiite crescent. Russia hopes to use its position in Syria to bargain for concessions over Ukraine. China wants to rebuild Syria when it’s all over. North Korea is just sinister.

But there is also the collective interest of Dictatorship Inc.

Interest No. 1: To see a popular rebellion against tyranny fail spectacularly.

This is fundamental. Syria isn’t so much a country as it is an exhibit for Dictatorship Inc., the main purpose of which is to show that resistance really is futile. That’s why Russia doesn’t shrink from bombing civilian hospitals, or Hezbollah from starving entire cities into submission, or Assad from using chemical weapons. They are showing their respective publics the lengths to which they are prepared to go to maintain their own grip on power.

Interest No. 2: To underscore America’s unreliability as a credible ally and serious enforcer of global norms.

Whatever their differences, Iran, North Korea, Russia and China are all so-called revisionist powers. What they want to revise, or erase, is Pax Americana. In Syria, they had an ally, a cause and a plausible outcome. America, by contrast, only had the bonfire of its ambivalence. The result, beyond the humanitarian catastrophe, has been a reputational catastrophe, as the U.S. demonstrated that it would not back its local allies, or seriously enforce norms against the use of chemical weapons, or devise and implement a strategy compatible with our stated policy.

Whatever else one might say about American regional interests or moral obligations when it comes to Syria, we have a vital national interest in foiling Dictatorship Inc.’s ambitions for the country.

We could do something to reverse our reputation for unreliability by doing more to protect our Kurdish allies against their enemies — including the Turks — much as we did after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. We could erase the stain of the breached red line by striking Assad’s military installations every time Syria uses chemical weapons. We could find covert ways to dramatically increase the military price Russia is paying for its intervention.

And we could do all this, without burdening ourselves as we did in Iraq, with the task of sorting out Syria’s future.

That requires an administration capable of devising, coordinating and executing a consistent military and diplomatic strategy. We don’t have one.

It requires a president who understands the benefits of Pax Americana, doesn’t think of foreign policy as a series of gimmes, is capable of rallying allies to a common cause, and understands that our liberal values are the great prerequisite for our global leadership. We don’t have one.

Above all, it requires a belief in what used to be called the free world: of its shared moral principles, broad interests, and long-term aspirations. We don’t have that, either.

The axis of evil is back, not that it ever really went away. The cause of freedom awaits a resurrection.


  • Stephens begins with the observation that four countries are supporting, with arms and fighters,  Bashar al-Assad’s totalitarian Syria. And he asks why? “Why should a Shiite theocrat, a Russian kleptocrat, a Korean gourmand and a Chinese son of heaven unite so openly to rescue a foul and feeble Baathist dictatorship?”
  • And his answers, at least to me, are convincing. For one, the four dictators want to see a popular rebellion against tyranny fail spectacularly. Why? Because they are all most afraid of a popular rebellion. And for two, they want no less to see America fail in its efforts to support a popular rebellion.
  • America’s interest for Syria ought to be “foiling Dictatorship Inc.’s ambitions for the country.” But America is quite without an administration capable of devising, coordinating and executing a consistent military and diplomatic strategy. Above all, it would require what we no longer have, the belief in what used to be called the free world, a world with shared moral principles, broad interests, and long-term aspirations.
  • Trump himself seems to have wanted his presidency to be all about having Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and their ilk as friends and dinner guests at Mar-a-Lago and then his playing golf with celebrities at his West Palm Beach International Club. This presidency, being entirely a product of his own pipe dream, never came about of course. Instead his presidency is something else, perhaps best described as his not being up to the task of being president, his first year or two in office being colored by a constant and growing frustration with his own failure to achieve his unrealistic goals for the country, these stemming most of all from his nearly complete ignorance of the country’s history.
  • Without his yet jettisoning our democratic principals entirely, our individual freedoms, human rights, the rule of law,… Trump has revealed himself to be entirely without the Enlightenment values on which these principals are based, and on which the country was founded, values emphasizing tolerance, acceptance of differences, equality, human dignity, reason and the scientific outlook, and most important the healthy skepticism of the humanist who challenges conventional religious views, in particular superstition, intolerance, and bigotry, the very views that have characterized in large part Trump’s own presidency up until now. Trump’s sympathies for authoritarianism, for intolerance of differences, for bigotry, have prevented him from opposing the Putin, Xi, and Erdogan, as well as the other dictatorships of the Dictatorship Inc. of which Stephens is writing.


  • After reading Bret Stephens, and making a few comments of my own I happened to stumble on a piece from the Boston Review, by G. M. TAMÁS,
  • On Post-Fascism, or the degradation of universal citizenship.
  • I was struck by how close we were, Bret Stephens, G. M. Tamas,, and myself and as I’ve come to see since the presence of Donald Trump in the Oval Office,  hundreds of other writers and commentators, who are all describing pretty much the same thing, what Tamás calls the degradation of universal citizenship, what Stephens calls the renewed and powerful presence in our world of Dictatorship Inc., what I call the slow and painful jettison of the values of the Enlightenment that we thought for a good time were here to stay. Apparently they weren’t
  • Anyway, here’s a selection from Tamas’s article in the Boston Review:

Before the Enlightenment, citizenship was a privilege, an elevated status limited by descent, class, race, creed, gender, political participation, morals, profession, patronage, and administrative fiat, not to speak of age and education. Active membership in the political community was a station to yearn for, civis Romanus sum the enunciation of a certain nobility. Policies extending citizenship may have been generous or stingy, but the rule was that the rank of citizen was conferred by the lawfully constituted authority, according to expediency. Christianity, like some Stoics, sought to transcend this kind of limited citizenship by considering it second-rate or inessential when compared to a virtual community of the saved. Freedom from sin was superior to the freedom of the city. During the long, medieval obsolescence of the civic, the claim for an active membership in the political community was superseded by the exigencies of just governance, and civic excellence was abbreviated to martial virtue.

Once citizenship was equated with human dignity, its extension to all classes, professions, both sexes, all races, creeds, and locations was only a matter of time. Universal franchise, the national service, and state education for all had to follow. Moreover, once all human beings were supposed to be able to accede to the high rank of a citizen, national solidarity within the newly egalitarian political community demanded the relief of the estate of Man, a dignified material existence for all, and the eradication of the remnants of personal servitude. The state, putatively representing everybody, was prevailed upon to grant not only a modicum of wealth for most people, but also a minimum of leisure, once the exclusive temporal fief of gentlemen only, in order to enable us all to play and enjoy the benefits of culture.

For the liberal, social-democratic, and other assorted progressive heirs of the Enlightenment, then, progress meant universal citizenship—that is, a virtual equality of political condition, a virtually equal say for all in the common affairs of any given community—together with a social condition and a model of rationality that could make it possible. For some, socialism seemed to be the straightforward continuation and enlargement of the Enlightenment project; for some, like Karl Marx, the completion of the project required a revolution (doing away with the appropriation of surplus value and an end to the social division of labor). But for all of them it appeared fairly obvious that the merger of the human and the political condition was, simply, moral necessity.


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