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.
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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.