Last week, Sacha Baron Cohen released a trailer for his new film. You can see it here.
Whatever you think of his comedy, you can’t argue with his timing.
Kim Jong-il is only the most recent military strong man to march off the parade ground. Around the world, the traditional tyrant now seems an endangered species.
Yet, while 2011 might have been a bad year for dictators, few would suggest it’s been a good year for democracy. Indeed, as Karen Kissane reports from Europe, in many ways, it’s been quite a grim one.
How to explain that paradox?
Let’s first acknowledge that dictators give good media. Television loves strong characters and simple plots, and an old school dictatorship guarantees both. To invoke a particular tyranny, the media needs only show a particular tyrant. Look, there’s Saddam and his moustache. Look, there’s Kim saluting a military parade, Gaddafi with his bodyguards.
It’s the metonym used in every hagiography: the leader as embodiment of his people. To know North Korea, you need only know Kim, just as, in 2001, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were the only inhabitants of Afghanistan.
What that means is we tend think about dictatorships in the terms set by their dictators, with the Great Man the only factor worth bothering about.
That’s why every war gets sold as a humanitarian intervention, since a crusade against a tyrant makes the conflict as simple as Playstation. You work your way through the despot’s evil minions until you find the man himself. Then, as the current euphemism has it, you ‘take him out’. Boss level complete. Game over.
Except, as we learned from Iraq, reality doesn’t work like that.
Even as Obama declared that particular war done and dusted, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq was arguing that Washington was leaving the people ‘with a dictator’, on the basis that current president Nuri al-Maliki was worse than Saddam Hussein. Since then, a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Vice President, Tariq al- Hashemi on terrorism charges.
Thus, depending on which governmental faction you believe, the regime that cost the US and its allies trillions of dollars and thousands of lives is either rife with terrorists or run by dictators, neither of which is quite the result George Bush promised.
Similarly, now that the smoke over Libya has begone to clear, the situation there seems more complex than hitherto advertised.
For all Gaddafi’s undoubted nastiness, the emphasis on his vicious buffoonery framed the Libyan civil war as a cartoon struggle between good and evil. But now we learn that the NATO mission mandated to prevent civilian casualties resulted in lots of civilian casualties, that the overthrow of a human rights abuser brought its own crop of human rights abuses (‘7,000 held in Libya’s new reign of fear and torture’, says the Daily Mail), and that the emerging regime includes many faces from the old regime.
Pulling down statues makes good photos but it does not produce a democracy.
If the leaders are big, the people are small. And, equally, the reverse. That’s why the overthrow of a dictatorship by that nation’s own citizens is far more likely to foster real progress than any number of shock and awe campaigns from abroad.
North Korea seems rotten ripe for change. But it’s the task of the North Koreans to settle with their own oppressors. If we learned anything over the last decade, it’s that freedom doesn’t ride on a Predator drone, nor is democracy the code name for a CIA operation.
As 2011 comes to an end, both seems points worth remembering.