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Dictators never looked so good

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media during a news conference at the G20 summit in St.Petersburg September 6, 2013. REUTERS/
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media during a news conference at the G20 summit in St.Petersburg September 6, 2013. REUTERS/

By David Rohde

Dictators have never looked so good.

Vladimir Putin is saving the United States from another Mideast military intervention. Bashar al-Assad promises to "thin the herd" of jihadists and hold Syria together. And Egypt's new strongman, General Abdal Fattah el Sisi, says he is sorting out the Muslim Brotherhood.

With each passing month in the Middle East, it seems, authoritarianism grows more attractive.

Leaders described as "repressive" sound eminently reasonable. They promise to bring order to chaos.

Putin's op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday is the latest example.

Written with the help of an American public relations firm, the piece provoked a dizzying array of reactions.

Here's one fact check by Max Fisher of the Washington Post. Here's a take down from Human Rights Watch. And the New Yorker posted this hilarious Andy Borowitz mock Modern Love column by the swashbuckling former KGB operative.

The views Putin expresses are seductive. Some of his criticisms of American power are legitimate. American unilateralism — from Iraq to drone strikes to National Security Agency surveillance — undermines President Barack Obama's credibility on striking Syria.

But in the end Putin's opinion piece matches his Russia. It is appealing on the surface but hollow at its core.

Throughout, Putin lies by omission. In other spots, he lies flat-out. Here are a few doozies that would make Orwell proud.

Putin presents himself as the pacifist and Obama as the militarist. He argues that American cruise missile strikes will "result in more innocent victims," that the U.S. increasingly relies "solely on brute force." He makes no mention of the vast amount of weaponry Russia has shipped to Assad over the last two years.

Putin then muddies the water. He says there are "few champions of democracy in Syria," highlights the role of jihadists in the opposition and declares that Russia has "advocated a peaceful dialogue." No mention is made of Assad's decision to fire on demonstrators and jail his opponents in the initial stage of the uprising. Nor does Putin say that eight of the nine mass killings recently investigated by the United Nations were committed by government forces.

The issue, though, is not a tendentious op-ed. It is the state of Putin's Russia. While he declares himself a defender of "international law" in Syria, Putin government systematically violates international law at home - from jailing political opponents, to imprisoning independent journalists to advocating laws that legalize homophobia.

I visited Moscow in May, while covering Secretary of State John Kerry's first trip to Russia. Western diplomats and Russian analysts painted a bleak portrait of Russia's future. In a globalized economy where innovation, foreign investment and transparency are key to growth, Putin has suffocated all three.

Putin's relentless centralization of economic power and intolerance of political dissent had created a one-dimensional economy based primarily on oil revenues. The random criminal and tax cases brought against Putin rivals had prompted Russian and foreign investors to flee. They have pulled $1.2 billion from Russia-focused equity funds so far this year, Reuters reported.

In Egypt, there are clear parallels as Sisi also embraces authoritarianism. He is promising stability, playing on nationalist sentiment — and crushing all potential rivals. Ursula Lindsey reported in the New York Times Thursday that a "cult of Sisi" is emerging in the country that hails the general for reviving Egypt.

"Of course, this obfuscates some uncomfortable facts," Lindsey wrote. "Having shaped the country's economy and politics for the last 60 years, is one of the institutions most responsible for Egypt's corruption and decline."

Two months ago, Sisi launched a brutal crackdown, killing 1,300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Signs are emerging that elements of the group have radicalized. Last week, the country's pro-military interior minister narrowly survived a bomb attack. A full-scale insurgency may well emerge in Egypt in the months ahead.

Obama has waffled on both Egypt and Syria. He has repeatedly contradicted himself on national security. Americans must start to realize how repugnant the concept of "American exceptionalism" is to other nations.

But Putin's successful execution of one of the most cynical exercises in statecraft in decades does not make him a visionary. Nor does it make Russian-style authoritarianism a model for the Middle East.

There is nothing altruistic or complex about Putin's strategy in Syria.

He is defending Assad in order to preserve his key ally in the Middle East and his own rule in Russia. Putin sees Syria as the latest in a line of American interventions that has toppled rulers worldwide. Dismissing protests against himself and other autocrats as CIA plots, he probably fears he may be next.

As 100,000 people have died, Putin has used obstruction at the United Nations — not pro-active diplomacy — to elevate his position in the world. His willingness to boost his own standing by spreading false conspiracy theories and glossing over crimes committed by the Syrian government is shameful.

Difficult questions need to be asked about U.S. interests in the Middle East. Thriving, stable democracies are our goal. But quickly achieving that ideal is not possible. In each nation, different approaches are needed.

The Arab Spring has shown that rushed transitions to democracy can devolve into chaos, where jihadists can thrive.

But we should not be fooled into thinking that authoritarianism is a long-term answer to the complex dynamics roiling the Middle East. It creates stability in the short-term — and stagnation and decay over time.

The path to democracy in the region is long, complicated and deeply unnerving. But it should remain our ultimate goal.

(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times. His latest book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East," was published in April.)

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