Who is the Great Dictator of the Day?

It’s a popular intellectual game among historians to debate who was the “worst” dictator of all time, with most of the disputants arguing the relative merits of Stalin or Hitler with a noisy minority piping up for Mao, Pol Pot and other notorious figures [ sidebar: on the Nazism vs. Stalinism issue, my favorite response is from the great man of letters and author of The Great Terror: A ReassessmentRobert Conquest, who was asked why he thought Hitler’s National Socialist tyranny outclassed Stalin’s in terms of Evil and he replied simply ” I feel it to be so.”]. The blood-soaked 20th century provides a long list of candidates for the title.

But what of the 21st century ?

Who today should be considered ” the great dictator”?

28 comments on this post.
  1. Dave Schuler:

    I would have said “Bill Gates” but I would think that one of the prerequisites for the title “Great Dictator” would be to have no retirement plan so he doesn’t qualify.

  2. Smitten Eagle:

    Why George W. Bush, of course!  (just kidding, although I know 1/3 of America agrees with that statement!)

    I would say the worst dictators are the anonymous ones:  The leaders of Hamas and the Taliban in the NWFP.

    But then again, Mugabe and Kim are pretty bad, too.

  3. Dan tdaxp:

    Vladimir Putin.

    His "orientation" of Russia back east and away from Europe evokes the last Czars and the first Premiers, and is the antithesis of great "European" leaders of Russia such as Peter and Catherine.

    Given the choice between being a "Big Poland" or a "Big Kazakhstan," Putin the chose the second.  This is an important change for a country that (by land area at least) is still the world’s largest country.

  4. Eddie:

    The Supreme Leader of Iran and assorted underlings/rivals.
    The other countries misruled and ravaged by dictators do not share the distinction of holding a once great civilization in the 19th century.

    The Burmese junta desires to ascend to the top though, and may yet if they fall and send Burma crashing down into a hundred different ethnic and political pieces.

  5. Fabius Maximus:

    What is the criteria for "great dictator? 

    (1)  Body count?  None of those named have run up large body counts.
    .
    (2)  Degree of power exercised?  The US, Hamas, the Taliban, and Iran hardly qualifies as dictatorships.  As for Putin, he was elected.  If he held a vote to change the constitution so that he could run again, all observers I’ve read say he would win with a landslide.  That he instead stepped down as President might indicate (might) that he is moving Russia away from personal rule toward a true republican system.
    .
    (3)  Wars started?   Bush is the only one that qualifies.  Hamas entered an existing war.  The Taliban ended a civil war, which we then re-started.
    .
    (4)  Negative effects on his State and its people?  Bush — and the leaders of Hamas, the Taliban, and Iran — all can claim to be winners (in different ways) in this category.  Putin is considered by most Russians as having (along with high oil prices) revitalized Russia following the terrible years of Goby and Yeltsin. 
    .
    (5)  Net effects on his State and people?  Perhaps too complex to discuss for such a simple title as "great dictator."
    .
    I vote with Smitten Eagle:  Mugabe and Kim.  Clear winners on points, sweeping most categories.

  6. Fabius Maximus:

    What is the criteria for "great dictator? 
    . . 
    (1)  Body count?  None of those named have run up large body counts.
    . . 
    (2)  Degree of power exercised by one leader?  The US, Hamas, the Taliban, and Iran hardly qualifies as dictatorships.  As for Putin, he was elected.  If he held a vote to change the constitution so that he could run again, all observers I’ve read say he would win with a landslide.  That he instead stepped down as President might indicate (might) that he is moving Russia away from personal rule toward a true republican system.
    . .  
    (3)  Wars started?   Bush is the only one that qualifies.  Hamas entered an existing war.  The Taliban ended a civil war, which we then re-started.
    . .  
    (4)  Negative effects on his State and its people?  Bush — and the leaders of Hamas, the Taliban, and Iran — can all claim to be winners (in different ways) in this category.  Putin is considered by most Russians as having (along with high oil prices) revitalized Russia following the terrible years of Goby and Yeltsin.
    . .   
    (5)  Net effects on his State and people?  Perhaps too complex to discuss for such a simple title as "great dictator."
     . .  
    I vote with Smitten Eagle:  Mugabe and Kim.  Clear winners on points, sweeping most categories.   Small nations only, so nothing comparable to the big guys that wrote so much of 20th C history.

  7. purpleslog:

    The 21st Century title is still open.

    It is ridiculous to to include Bush in this category.

    The "winner" will be the dictator with the biggest absolute body count. False cries of "never again" aside, it will happen again.

    The looser will be the massed dead, and to a lesser extent the rest of civilization that may have benefited by the output of their human capital and that of their potential descendants.

  8. Dan tdaxp:

    "(3)  Wars started?   Bush is the only one that qualifies.  Hamas entered an existing war.  The Taliban ended a civil war, which we then re-started."??

    A strange comment.  Dostum, Ismail Khan, and the rest of the friendlies had re-entered Afghanistan before 9/11, as the Taliban were unable to pacify North Afghanistan.

  9. Eddie:

    Rats! Thank you Purpleslog! Your comment made me realize I forgot the great dictator of the day, the one who is going to ignite another war on the African continent in just another year or three: the recently indicted but never to be extradited Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan.

  10. Omar Al-Bashir « Hidden Unities:

    […] esteemed Zenpundit asks a question sure to ignite debate, “Who Is The Great Dictator of The Day?” I originally tagged the mis-rulers of Iran as my candidate, but the Khartoum regime in Sudan is too […]

  11. Barnabus:

    …the 21st century is a bit young to be giving out awards.  I’m afraid we are in for alot worse.

    Fabius, your 3 and 4 are absurd.  You state, "The Taliban ended a civil war, which we then re-started."  Me thinks you left out a little bit of history; i.e. there would not have been a 9/11 without Taliban support for al Qaeda.  As to your 4, it boggles the mind to think how you came to this conclusion. 

  12. Fabius Maximus:

    Thanks Eddie!  How could we have all overlooked Al-Bashir, another of Africa’s ample crop of small (not great) dictators.
    . . .  
    As for Afghanistan:  On the this level of discussion I think it is fair to say their civil war was over before 9/11.  In the year or so before 9/11 the Taliban had a firm grip on aprox 9/10’s of the area, that border was more or less stable, and the level of casuaties was low (compared with before or after). 
    . .
    Dan tdaxp is, of course, correct that this is not real peace.  It would be considered terrible for Iowa, but it was peace by the standards of post-1979 Afghanistan.  And this more-or-less happy state was ended by our intervention (whether for good or ill only future generations can say).  Violence has increased quite a bit since then.
    . . . 
    Barnabus is also right on when he says that the Taliban has some responsibility for 9/1 and therefor our invasion.  And, as Purpleslog says, it is ridiculous to include Bush as a "great dicator" (although, as Smitten Eagle notes, a large fraction of Americans disagrees). 
    . . . 
    Barnabus:  what is absurd about 3 & 4? 
    . .  
    As for Putin… I am not an expert on Russia, but follow it closely.  I have quite a few reports on this, all of which attest to Putin’s great popularity in Russia.  He has brought their economy back from the brink and returned them to the global stage as a great power.  Russians, like Americans, consider their leader responsible for the economy — and he benefits from high oil prices.
    . . . 
    For a contemporaneous article about pre-9/11 Afghanistan:  "MASSOUD READY TO FIGHT ON", Ahmed Rashid, EURASIA INSIGHT, 10/06/2000 — Note Massoud was killed in Sept 2001.
    http://www.eurasianet.org/eurasianet/departments/insight/articles/eav1006a00.shtml
    . . .  
    One of the best (and free) Russia analysts — in the 4 years or so I’ve read him — is Eric Kraus (an expat living in Russia).  His writing is clear (more so than most analysts), detailed — and (what I value most) has proven very accurate.
    http://nikitskyfund.com/content/blogsection/4/37/

  13. Fabius Maximus:

    Thanks Eddie!  How could we have all overlooked Al-Bashir, another of Africa’s large crop of dictators. . . .   As for Afghanistan:  On the this level of discussion I think it is fair to say their civil war was over before 9/11.  In the year or so before 9/11 the Taliban had a firm grip on aprox 9/10’s of its area, the border b/ the two zones was more or less stable, and the level of casuaties was low (compared with before or after)..  . . Dan tdaxp is, of course, correct that this is not real peace.  It would be considered terrible for Iowa, but it was peace by the standards of post-1979 Afghanistan.  This more-or-less happy state was ended by our intervention (whether for good or ill only future generations can say).  Violence has increased quite a bit since then.. . . .  Barnabus is of course right on when he says that the Taliban has some responsibility for 9/1 and so for our invasion.  And, as Purpleslog says, it is ridiculous to include Bush as a "great dictator" (although, as Smitten Eagle notes, a large fraction of Americans disagree).  . . .  Barnabus:  what is absurd about 3 & 4?  . . . As for Putin… I am no expert about Russia, but follow it closely.  Most of the reports I have read speak of Putin’s great popularity in Russia.  He has brought their economy back from the brink of ruin and returned them to the global stage as a great power.  Russians, like Americans, consider their leader responsible for the economy — and so he benefits from high oil prices. . . .  For a contemporaneous article about pre-9/11 Afghanistan:  "MASSOUD READY TO FIGHT ON", Ahmed Rashid, EURASIA INSIGHT, 10/06/2000 — Note Massoud was killed in Sept 2001:
    URL:  eurasianet.org/eurasianet/departments/insight/articles/eav1006a00.shtml  . . . One of the best free reports by Russia analysts — in the 4 years or so I’ve read him — is Eric Kraus (an expat living in Russia).  His writing is clear (more so than most analysts), detailed — and (what I value most) has proven very accurate:
    URL:   nikitskyfund.com/content/blogsection/4/37/   

  14. zen:

    A few points:
    .
    A fine discussion. That we are scraping to come up with a "great" dictator demonstrates that not everything is bad with our times. Even the butcher of the Sudan pales in comparison with Brother Number One, Pol Pot and unlike the 20th century we don’t have any cannibal psuedo-emperors or witch doctor presidents for life running around governing countries today. Disorder rather than totalitarianism is the greater threat.
    .
    Re: Russia – If George W. Bush had raised real income to the extent Putin has done in Russia, Americans would have crowned him king. That Putin did this primarily because of favorable oil and gas markets is irrelevant to the average Ivan grandson of a Muzhik.  Cracking down on the oligarchs and the Chechens were wildly popular moves as well.

  15. Dan tdaxp:

    Fabius’ attempt to argue that Afghanistan was in a state of peace in the third quarter of 2001 by citing Rashid is unusual, as Rashid argues against the notion in Descent into Chaos.

  16. tdaxp » Blog Archive » Our Diverted War Against Pakistan:

    […] naive commentators believe that the Taliban had pacified Afghanistan by 9/11/01, though of course this is not true. […]

  17. Fabius Maximus:

    "Fabius’ attempt to argue that Afghanistan was in a state of peace in the third quarter of 2001 "

    Dan, The formating is bad on my comment (I have never gotten the hang of this system), so you may have missed this:  "Dan tdaxp is, of course, correct that this is not real peace. … but it was peace by the standards of post-1979 Afghanistan … Violence has increased quite a bit since then."

    In my second sentence I meant (and should have said) "relative peace".  Is there a black/white definition for "peace" in a society? 

  18. selil:

    Fabius asks "Is there a black/white definition for "peace" in society", and the answer is yes. Peace is for the dead.  I think is was a Buddhist saying that to live is to be in conflict. 

  19. Dan tdaxp:

    Fabius previously wrote:

    The Taliban ended a civil war, which we then re-started.

    If he did not mean this, he should react it.

  20. Dan tdaxp:

    … as I "retract" my misspelling of "retract"! 🙂

  21. Fabius Maximus:

    Dan tdaxp gets my vote for the "best of thread" comment, for working in a way cool Buddhist saying.  "To live is to be in conflict."  Can’t argue with that!

  22. Fabius Maximus:

    As for Afghanistan, this is a "half full — half empty" debate, in my opinion.  I consider determinative that the Taliban held 90% of Afghanistan, good news about the winding down and even end to a two decade-long war that killed 1.5 million.  Dan Txdap sees the conflict over the remaining 10%+ as more inportant.
    .. . . .
    What can say which view is right?  Perhaps an annual count of war-related deaths would help.  But even if my guess is correct that there is a "V" shape to these over time, that does not mean that Dan is wrong.  As Robert Heinlein said in Starship Troopers, "Men are not potatoes."  Their value is not measured in count of bodies or pounds.
    .. ..
    The answer to this question about our role in Afghanistan is an important part of the debate about COIN and the value of foreign interventions.  For more on this see   “Is Counterinsurgency the Graduate Level of War?“, David S. Maxwell (Colonel, US Army), Small Wars Journal, 20 July 2008.  I have a post going up on this next week.

  23. Jay@Soob:

    Distraction. Apathy. Ignorance. There’s three. Pick your one.

  24. Dan tdaxp:

    I don’t know if Fabius has retracted his previous claim or not, as he once spoke of the Taliban having ended a war, and not he insists that their deteriorating position as of Fall 2001 (in which they were unable to prevent the warlords from re-entering the country and escalating attacks on Taliban targets) was "winding down."

  25. Fabius Maximus:

    Dan raises another important point, IMO, looking at my statement:
    ..  . 
    "good news about the winding down and even end to a two-decade long-war"
    …. ….
    That language indicates uncertainty about the situation.  This discussion has moved to a more technical basis from the initial half-serious conversation about "great dictators" — the basis on which Bush was included, and my casual mention of "ended" the war (rather than the more precise expression I gave later:  relative peace, compared to what came before and after).
    … ..
    Why uncertainty?  I believe that speaking with certainty about such things is unwarranted (of course, this is a matter of opinion and style).  How can we do so about events in a place like Afghanistan (always complex and unclear), after a generation of war.
    ..  .. 
    Esp:  when the main point of debate concerns a counter-factual:  what would have happened if we had not intervened?  Would the civil war have flared up again?  Or smouldered in a few areas (aprox 10% of the total) for many years — perhaps accepted, as we accept the violence in our inner cities.  This is not knowable, any more than finding a bright line between "peace" and "war."
    .. …  
    Rather, there is no answer other than Dan’s:  "Peace is for the dead.  I think is was a Buddhist saying that to live is to be in conflict. "  In that sense, wars do not start or end.  Similar to Jerry Pournelle:  "On the evidence, peace is a purely theoretical state of affairs whose existence we deduce because there have been intervals between wars” (from his introduction to "Hammer’s Slammers" by David Drake).

  26. Fabius Maximus:

    Trivia question about the Taliban’s "deteriorating position as of Fall 2001 (in which they were unable to prevent the warlords from re-entering the country and escalating attacks on Taliban targets)"
    .. .. 
    This a level of detail beyond my expertise, but so far as a quick check shows, neither of the two warlords you mentioned above re-entered Afghanistan in Fall 2001 before the US intervention.
    …  ..
    Dostum returned in April 2001 per Wikipedia and early 2001 per his BBC profile.  Per both Wikipedia and Strategic Insights, Ismal Khan returned only after the US invasion.
    … … 
    Speaking with precision about 3rd world wars is difficult.  Do any of Zenpundit readers (i.e., anyone reading in this long, long thread) have data that measures the changing intensity of Afghanistan’s wars during the past 2 decades?

  27. arherring:

    Wow, a Starship Troopers and a Hammer’s Slammers reference in the same thread. That’s a pretty obscure combination.

    I think the definition of a dictator is one who creates a system to impose and perpetuate their own power over others (hence dictate) be it military, spirtual, political or (insert leverage here). The reach of the affects of that system should be the measure of a dictator.

  28. Dan tdaxp:

    Fabius’ argument descends into incoherence.

    When he wants to speak in specifics, he criticizes others for a supposed black-white view of the world. But when he wants to speak in generalities, he criticizes others for details.  The only pattern here is Fabius enjoys conversations that allow him to use what he already knows, and shuns knows that force him to know further.