Just four or five years ago, the headlines were full of democratic movements, notably the yellow, rose and cedar "revolutions" in the Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon. The Taliban had been toppled, Saddam Hussein overthrown. Democratic stirrings were heralded from the streets of Iran and China to promises of reform in Saudi Arabia and Libya. Freedom was continuing a roll begun way back in the Reagan era. Tyrants were on the outs with polite society.
These days, dictators are on a roll. Among the many signs was last week's op-ed in The New York Times by none other than Muammar Qaddafi, unrepentant and brutal tyrant in Tripoli for the past 40 years--though, for the purposes of this piece, the Times identifies him politely as "the leader of Libya." I am still pondering that article, and not solely because this is the same New York Times that last fall rejected an op-ed by John McCain when he was running for president. Qaddafi used his patch of American editorial space to float a plan that would demographically blitz democratic Israel out of existence by setting up a single combined Palestinian-Israeli state, which he suggests we call "Isratine."
It's tempting simply to dismiss such stuff as unintended self-parody--whether on the part of Qaddafi, the Times or both. But it is also a token that tyrants are back in style, not only feeling safe to venture out of their spider holes but preening as elder statesmen and increasingly welcomed back to the parlors, editorial pages and negotiating tables of democratic high society.
Earlier this month, New York-based Freedom House reported that for the third straight year, freedom around the globe is, on balance, in retreat. In most of the former Soviet Union, this continues "a decade-long trend of regression." In the Middle East, apart from improvements in Iraq, stagnation is the word. The brightest spot is South Asia, which saw improvements in Pakistan, the Maldives and Bhutan. But looming over that landscape is China, which "increased repression instead of delivering human rights reforms pledged in connection to hosting the Olympics." Latin America and Africa registered net declines.
The basic cause for concern is not that there are more dictatorships than a few years ago, but that the global ethos has shifted. There is a growing swagger among despots.
Freedom House Research Director Arch Puddington highlights Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Venezuela as showing "enhanced anti-democratic tendencies." But these are surrounded as well by a scene of broader decline.
Freedom House attributes part of this slide to "gathering authoritarian pushback against opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations and the press." It might be tempting to blame such pushback on President Bush's democracy agenda. Except, coinciding with this decline, Bush dropped the dead-or-alive approach to terrorists and their state sponsors during his second term, and soft-pedaled the democratization push. Increasingly during his final years in office, he relied on soft power, talks at Annapolis, talks with North Korea, talks via the European Union and the mechanisms of the predominantly undemocratic United Nations.
My diagnosis is that, since the wave of democratization that swept parts of Asia in the late 1980s and rolled on in 1991 to the Soviet collapse, despots have had a chance to rethink, regroup, and--like the opportunistic crowd they are--adapt. Where there is an opening, whenever the pressures come off, they tend to find and exploit it.
Along with the growing despotic gloom in Russia, much of the former Soviet Union features a lineup of rulers who have by now stayed on quite long enough to qualify not as transition leaders but entrenched despots. In Belarus, ranked year after year among the world's most unfree regimes, President Alexander Lukashenko won power in a 1994 election and hasn't budged since. In Central Asia, former Soviet Party bosses who took power amid the debris of the Soviet collapse are still in place 18 years later: Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan; Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan.
In Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov--totalitarian star of a personality cult that rivaled Kim Jong Il's in North Korea--died in 2006, only to be replaced by an almost equally repressive dictator, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who had been Niyazov's protégé.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak rose to power following the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. Today, a generation later, Mubarak rules there still, supported by U.S. subsidies, courted as an Arab moderate and surrounded by speculation that his son may succeed him.
Despotic dynasties are themselves on something of a roll. That Saudi Arabia's royal family is a paragon of this style goes without saying. This, in itself, is part of the problem. In Azerbaijan, former Soviet Party boss Heydar Aliyev took power in a 1993 coup, cemented by an "election" in which he won almost 99% of the vote. He was succeeded in 2003 by his son, the current president, Ilham Aliyev.
In Syria, the elder totalitarian ruler Hafez Assad was replaced upon his death in 2000 by his son, the current totalitarian ruler, President Bashar Assad. In North Korea, the death of Great Leader Kim Il Sung in 1994 elided into the rule of his son, Kim Jong Il--possessor today of the nuclear weapons his father once dreamed of. To this list, Cuba adds a fraternal frill with Raul Castro, brother of the ailing Fidel, stepping in to ensure there is no interruption in the revolution that for 50 years now has repressed and beggared the people of Cuba.
Africa, despite promising spots here and there, remains home some to some of the world's worst tyrants, both infamous (Sudan) and obscure (Cameroon). Zimbabwe, ruled for almost 30 years by Robert Mugabe, has degenerated from a breadbasket of southern Africa into a basket case of violence, hunger and cholera. Tucked away in relative obscurity, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea features yearly on the Freedom House roster as one of the "worst of the worst," ruled by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, "who seized power in 1979 by deposing and murdering his uncle."
Hanging over this entire scene is a growing haze of repressive understandings, both implicit and explicit. Freedom House notes the "continuation of a negative global trend with respect to freedom of expression, freedom of association and the rule of law." In Europe and the U.K., politically correct fear of giving offense has put a damper on free speech and honest discourse. This reaches even into the U.S., where open debate has come under attack by way of both the same political correctness, souped up by "libel tourism," and the risk of being summoned to appear before an overseas court.
Into this landscape comes President Obama, who has already made it his refrain that he wants "a new partnership" with the Arab and Muslim worlds, based on shared interests and "mutual respect"--a phrase he included in both his inaugural address and his first sit-down interview as president, which he gave Tuesday to a Dubai-based Arabic-language television channel, al-Arabiya.
"Respect" … for governments that brutalize their own people and in some spectacularly malignant cases terrorize the rest of us? Obama's gamble is that if he extends a hand, which he has just done, the terror-sponsoring likes of Iran and Syria will not only unclench their fists but hold that pose.
Will Obama's gesture be met in good faith? Tyrannies as a rule are driven by the appetites and survival instincts of their rulers, whose deepest needs are to keep control, deflect the domestic furies and justify brutality at home by conjuring enemies abroad. Witness the case of North Korea, which for 15 years has been reaping aid and concessions in exchange for a series of deals to abjure nuclear weapons--deals in which both Presidents Clinton and Bush effectively made the same offer Obama now holds out: that they would extend a hand if Kim would unclench his fist. North Korea has unclenched and re-clenched repeatedly. The result is a Pyongyang regime that has both garnered the benefits and carried on making bombs.
Partnerships with dictators are Faustian bargains. America swaps a piece of its soul in exchange for the hope that good times will follow. In this climate it is not the democrats but the dictators who are gaining advantage.
Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.