Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

John Feffer

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

January 19th, 2012 8:10 AM

Assad and the Cult of Personality

When we focus our analysis on personalities like Assad in Syria or Kim Jong Un in North Korea, we succumb to our own personality cult.

He is, in the words of Barbara Walters, a “mild-mannered ophthalmologist.” Indeed, the rather squeamish leader-to-be chose eye surgery because it didn’t involve much blood. He speaks fluent English and can get by in French as well as his native Arabic. His wife is a knock-out, a “rose in the desert” according to a Vogue profile. Reluctant to take over the family business from his father, he interrupted his medical training in London to return home only after his older brother died in a car accident. Then, once at the helm, he released a number of political prisoners and instituted economic reforms that got a thumbs-up from the international business community. He cooperated with the United States in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even today, he uses all the right words: transparency, dignity, reform.

Bashar al-Assad has also proven to be a ruthless dictator whose crackdown on internal dissent has left more than 5,000 Syrians dead. What happened to the reluctant eye surgeon committed to modernizing his country along Western lines?

Assad is the not the first young reformer to turn out to be a fanatical defender of the ancien regime. In Libya, the London School of Economics-educated Saif al-Islam Gaddafi put himself forward as a voice for reform only to become, when push came to shove, a diehard defender of his father’s tyrannical rule. To bolster claims that he was a closet reformer, “Baby Doc” Duvalier released some political prisoners when he took over in Haiti after his dictator father died in 1971, but he eventually fled the country 15 years later with the blood of thousands on his hands. Gamal Mubarak “has been the leading voice in favour of change within the government and the ruling party,” argued Lord Peter Mandelson shortly before Egyptians successfully ousted the elder Mubarak and exposed the son’s corrupt, U.S.-assisted dealings.

It’s not just the sons of dictators that fool outsider observers into equating youth with change. Meles Zenawi was only 36 when he became the president of Ethiopia in 1991. Widely viewed as a “reformer” by the West, Zenawi has been at the helm for the last 20 years, his rule marked by electoral fraud, considerable repression in parts of the country, and military intervention in Somalia. Yoweri Musaveni took over Uganda at the age of 47 and was widely heralded as part of a new generation of African democrats, but war and domestic oppression have characterized his long reign as well.

Nor are democracies immune from this particular political fallacy. Young voices for change (Tony Blair, Barack Obama) often align themselves with powerful economic and political interests (the military, the financial sector), and end up strengthening the very status quo they promised to change.

Newcomers, however committed to change they might be at a personal level, rarely have the institutional clout to make their mark. As they consolidate power, power in turn transforms them. Paradoxically, it’s often the old-timers who end up transforming the systems that produced them. The party hacks are the ones who hack apart the party. Taking down a system is easier if you know the system’s weak points from the inside. And if you rise to the top of the system, you by definition have a base of support from which to operate.

Mikhail Gorbachev was an apparatchik of long standing, a true believer who ultimately restructured the Soviet Union out of existence. F.W. de Klerk was not only an architect of apartheid but widely considered one of the more conservative National Party members, until he changed his mind, his party, and along with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, all of South Africa. The jury is still out on Burmese President Thein Sein, but as a military man and junta leader who has so far initiated some important reforms, he may well have set out on the same trajectory as Gorbachev and de Klerk. None of these figures, of course, did it by themselves. Behind them, both inside and outside the system, stood powerful movements for change.

We ridicule countries that operate cults of personality – North Korea, Uzbekistan – and pat ourselves on the back that we reserve such embarrassing displays of adulation for guys who throw balls, gals who star in reality shows, and teenagers who sing pop music. At least our American idols don’t kill people. But alongside our celebration of celebrities, we also have a stealth personality cult: We insist, overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that only individuals, not institutions, make history. We are constantly on the lookout for the heroic leader who can single-handedly transform the warp and weave of their society. When a movement is leaderless like Occupy Wall Street or the leadership is dispersed as with so much of the Arab Spring, we’re not quite sure what to make of it. We are trapped in the personality cult that our culture of individualism has created.

So, when a transition takes place, as in North Korea, we ask all the wrong questions: who is Kim Jong Un, what are his politics, has his Swiss education influenced him, who are the individuals behind Kim Jong Un, will the young Kim transform his country? But to understand the future of North Korea, you must understand the key institutions in the society – the party, the military, and now the rising economic elite. Kim Jong Un’s possible love of fondue or American basketball is largely irrelevant. Just as the North Korean authorities are preparing the groundwork for the new leader’s personality cult, we unconsciously perform the rites of our own analytical personality cult by focusing on Kim Jong Un’s personal predilections.

We made the same mistake with Bashar al-Assad when we assumed that his personality would shape the Syrian system rather than the other way around. Now that he has proven to be a tyrant in disguise, he must go. “One-man rule and the perpetuation of family dynasties, monopolies of wealth and power, the silencing of the media, the deprivation of fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of every man, woman and child on this planet. To all of this, the people say: enough!” UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said in his recent message to Assad and Syria. It was rather naïve to expect Assad, the product not only of his father but of his father’s system, to do the Oedipal thing and kill his father’s legacy.

Some in the West have been tempted to call for a Libya-style intervention to support the opposition and remove Assad. As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Paul Mutter points out in Salon, a range of voices from neoconservatives to liberals are beginning to raise the intervention possibility more vigorously. “It is hard for most people to watch the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria without advocating military intervention from Western countries,” writes FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo in Syria’s Revolution Will Succeed. “However, even with the most morally upright intentions, such interventions are ripe with potential for abuse. An open-ended policy of military intervention is too easily exploited by those who would pursue it for political or economic ends, including not least for control of natural resources.”

It’s not just a matter of removing the “mild-mannered ophthalmologist” from his perch. Assad represents a large ruling elite aligned with the Alawite religious group, which makes up a not inconsiderable 12 percent of the Syrian population. Civil war indeed beckons, not because Assad is a charismatic leader who commands allegiance, but because his downfall could spell the loss of influence for a large class of people who can’t see how they would fit into a post-Assad order. Getting rid of the problematic personality at the top is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for change. It’s the entire Syrian political structure that must change. As an operation to save Syria, outside military intervention at this point would likely create more bloodshed than it would prevent. Assad, the squeamish eye doctor, has betrayed his erstwhile profession by spilling so much blood. The international community should not make the same mistake.

Creative Commons License This content is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law Donna Smith Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? Donna Smith We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa Nick Turse Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch Donna Smith The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

More in David Sirota's continuing series on the billionaire takeover of PBS: More PBS conflict woes as activists move to eject David Koch from board of...

Mar 3rd
12:35 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles