The military assault on Iraq may not have been a wise move. But few people, even those who were most firmly opposed to the Bush administration, can have felt anything but joy at the sight of Saddam Hussein being dragged from his underground pit. There is sweetness in a tyrant’s come-uppance. It doesn’t happen too often. Many have lived to a ripe old age; some still live on, as mummies, their waxen corpses displayed to the public. But rather than dwell upon what may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory in Iraq, I would like to consider a different question. Was Saddam one of the last of his kind? Have great dictators become obsolete?
This might seem an absurd question, for there are still too many of them around: Robert Mugabe is still busy wrecking his country; the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il runs North Korea like a nationwide concentration camp; Uzbekistan is ruled by Islam Karimov, a murderous despot and, as it happens, a US ally. Fidel Castro is said to be popular, but has never allowed an election, and his police regularly arrest dissidents. But on the whole, history’s tide has run against the Great Leaders of late. If we take the last thirty years or so, and especially that annus mirabilis 1989, the list of deposed dictators is longer than fresh ones: Nicolae Ceauçescu, Todor Zhivkov, Gustav Husák, Ferdinand Marcos, “Baby” Doc Duvalier, Idi Amin, Mariam Mengistu, the Shah of Iran, Emperor Bokassa, to name just a few. And, though horrible enough, these were provincial tyrants, small fish in the ocean of mass murderers. And the late Communist leaders were hardly great dictators, but more like autocratic bureaucrats. There is no one left of the stature of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. Not even Saddam was remotely in their league. And this alone is something worth celebrating.
I do not mean to say, like some neo-con Pollyanna, that democracy will sweep the world in the wake of armed US liberators. It may even be that some democratic states will become steadily more authoritarian. Vladimir Putin, though not yet a dictator, shows signs of intolerance toward any opposition. But the God-Kings, Führers, Great Helmsmen, Big Daddies, Number One Brothers, and Caudillos are vanishing. They might of course come back some day, reincarnated in a different form. I rather suspect that they will. For dictators cannot rule by terror alone. Terror is a necessary part of their monopoly on power, but not sufficient in itself. Dictators would only disappear forever if people were to give up their willingness, and sometimes even desire, to be ruled by them. But alas, man is weak, especially when faced with a crisis, and his desires are easily manipulated.
Before speculating on the future shape of dictatorships, I would like to return to the past, not only to reflect on the nature of the great dictators themselves, but on something that to me is more interesting, namely our fatal attraction to them.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.