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How Plato and Aristotle Help Us Understand the Tyranny of Bashar al-Assad

Today’s upheaval in the Arab world has antecedents in past revolutions. So, why are the lessons lost on U.S. policymakers?

Waller R. Newell
June 06, 2013
A walnut tree stripped of its branches stands in the rubble of the Kalat al-Numan citadel, originally built during the Roman era some 2,000 years ago, after allegedly being bombed several times by the Syrian air force on Nov. 18, 2012, in Maaret Al-Numan. (John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images)
A walnut tree stripped of its branches stands in the rubble of the Kalat al-Numan citadel, originally built during the Roman era some 2,000 years ago, after allegedly being bombed several times by the Syrian air force on Nov. 18, 2012, in Maaret Al-Numan. (John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images)

For the last two years, American and European leaders have confidently predicted that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria would soon be gone. Yet not only does he still control what remains of the Syrian state apparatus, he also just kicked the rebels out of the key town of al-Qusayr. Desertions from the Syrian military, initially thought to presage the regime’s collapse, have slowed markedly; in recent months, Assad’s strength has clearly increased, thanks to an influx of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and large-scale military resupply efforts from Iran and Russia.

Why is this so? To answer that question, we have to embrace the unpleasant reality that tyrannies can be quite effective in resisting democratization and crushing dissent and are frequently supported by wide swaths of the population. Unlike Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, countries with ancient pre-Islamic civilizations, Syria was cobbled together out of various cantonments and statelets left over from the Ottoman empire. The Alawites, a minority religious sect suspected of covert Christian and Druze tendencies, see no percentage in living under a Sunni-majority regime which would likely slaughter them to gain revenge for Assad’s frequent massacres of civilians. Same for the sizable Christian minority, which is the backbone of Syria’s economy.

Nor were Assad’s war tactics, as horrific as they were, hard to predict. He inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad, one of the Arab world’s most feared and repressive tyrannies. The Syrian Baathist regime had one of the worst human-rights abuse records in the world. The use of torture was widespread, along with arbitrary detention, gang-rape of prisoners (including children), and disappearances. The power of the dreaded Syrian Mukhabarat, or security service, was omnipresent.

Due to its adherence to the decrepit Baathist ideology of modernization from above, the Syrian economy remained a basket-case for decades, with a gross domestic product roughly that of West Virginia. Meddling in the internal politics of Lebanon, including assassinating anti-Syrian opposition leader Rafik Hariri, was among the regime’s few notable “achievements.” Open political debate was unknown, and the legislature was a rubber-stamp, 90 percent of whose members support Assad. When the civil unrest of the Arab Spring, having already led to the toppling of dictatorships in Egypt and Algeria, finally reached Syria, it was hardly surprising that decades of pent-up hatred for the Assads and their Alawite sect burst into a bloody and brutal civil war.

No decent person can fail to be appalled by the Assad regime’s brutality. But the simple fact is that the West lives every day with regimes, like North Korea, that leave Syria’s worst excesses in the shade. Indeed, beginning with the street demonstrations in Egypt, it seemed that American and European leaders veered overnight from uncritical support of Baathist dictators to demanding their immediate ousters, with no guarantee that they would not be followed by something no better if not much worse (as in Egypt, where violence against the Copts, threats to break the peace treaty with Israel, and the erosion of women’s rights are rampant).

Yet throughout all these awful yet entirely predictable developments, both the left and the neo-conservative right in America have persisted in believing that a new golden age of Arab liberal democracy—or something like it—was right around the corner. Whether it be Charles Krauthammer claiming that “everyone” in the Arab Spring “is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda” or President Barack Obama arguing that increased American aid will “roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate,” there is now an odd unity tying the two groups in what might be termed the Republican-Democratic National Foreign Policy Party. On its left, so to speak, are Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and neo-conservatives who see in the Arab Spring another opportunity for neo-Wilsonian interventionism, while on the right is the Obama Administration, which has agreed with many of the aims—bringing down Muammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Assad—but disagrees about the means, preferring indirect assistance in cooperation with Europe. Both sides seem eager to ignore the fact that liberal democracy with its full panoply of civil liberties and tolerance took several centuries to mature in the West.

Indeed, what passes for foreign-policy debate in official Washington reminds us that alleged ideological differences between left and right on America’s international role are often trumped by an underlying and unspoken expectation that progress is a natural and necessary evolution in human affairs. Whenever people claiming to want freedom and democracy spontaneously emerge—as in the Arab Spring—they are to be greeted with joy rather than foreboding. But in most of history and throughout most of the world, the demand for “freedom” has meant primarily the freedom to replace one arbitrary and oppressive form of government with another.


What I term “garden variety” tyrannies—men like the Assads, who exploit an entire country as if it were their private property so as to enrich themselves, their families, and cronies—have been around since the tyrants of ancient Greece. Sometimes (think Franco) their venality is dressed up as the defense of religious and national tradition. In the case of the Baath movement, the personal ambition of “the young colonels” was originally at the service of imitating the Soviet model of modernization from above, overcoming traditional religious and ethnic loyalties without succumbing to democratic self-government. The Arab Spring was the explosion of the contradiction between the original Baath secular model—which had long since degenerated into mere tyrannical greed and oppression with very little economic evolution, much less personal liberty—and the jihadist vision of a restored Islamic theocracy or even world caliphate.

The assumption that we should find “pro-democratic” groups among the rebels, as opposed to die-hard jihadists, is premised upon the belief that terrorist acts are born of despair over lack of economic opportunity and the peaceful benefits of a pluralist secular society. The tremendous influence of this idea goes back to the beginning of modernity in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. Thinkers such as Hobbes and Voltaire argued that tyrannical ambition, violence, military strife, and civil war were caused by denying human beings their basic rights to pursue their own self-interest. Once they enjoyed the fruits of security and well-being, the sources of aggression and “non-negotiable” conflict, such as religious differences, would melt way, leaving us free, as Voltaire encouraged, to cultivate our garden.

Still a bedrock assumption of the social sciences and its “rational actor” orientation, the assumption that human beings are naturally inclined to embrace the benefits of liberal democracy has been proven wrong time and again—and certainly since the emergence of militant Islam as a potent political force, starting in Afghanistan, where America’s help in fighting the Soviet invasion led to the emergence of the Taliban, a mortal foe whose gratitude for U.S. aid was shown in the attacks of Sept. 11. It is also contradicted by the fact that many terrorists do not come from impoverished backgrounds. Indeed, the ones among us in the United States are already living in a secular pluralist society and capable of enjoying its benefits, as the Boston Marathon bombing recently showed. There are many young men in the non-Western world for whom righteous anger, zeal, and aggression are simply more emotionally satisfying than Western comforts, personal choice, and tolerance.

American foreign-policy opinionators on the right and the left would do well to remember Aristotle’s maxim that “men do not become tyrants in order to get in out of the cold.” When revolution is romanticized, its leaders are often portrayed as young idealists fighting the grip of old men on power and privilege. In truth, as the history of revolutions from the Jacobins down to the present demonstrates, young rebels often aim precisely to establish a state where they will have absolute power to force others into a collective straitjacket. Both Qaddafi and Nasser, the secular Arab revolutionaries of a generation and two generations ago, began as putative young idealists bent on building a brighter future: They ended as variations on the Assads. In the case of totalitarian utopian visions such as Jacobinism, Bolshevism, and National Socialism, the revolutionaries’ contempt for what they perceive as the softness, corruption, and moral laxity of modern society is translated into the demand that the masses be purified of their addiction to material pleasures, a kind of secular religious monasticism imposed on an entire society.

That indignation over the corruption of the masses, the desire for a totalitarian collective that will purge their selfish cravings, is what drives the strongest-willed of the young men who believe they are fighting for jihad, including the rebels battling Assad. The ideology of jihadism, a variant of religious messianism hitched to the service of a totalitarian utopia, only increases the dangerous appeal of this distorted kind of idealism. Do I mean that none of the rebels in Syria want economic prosperity or individual liberty for themselves or their country? Of course not. But civil wars and revolutions are won by the fanatical inner core, not the rank and file or young employees of Google. The early followers of the French, Russian, National Socialist, and Iranian revolutions included those naive enough to think they were bringing about true democracy. The supreme leaders of those movements knew better.

Accordingly, in assessing the Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring as a whole, we have to entertain the discussion of the lesser of evils among tyrannies—a discussion that makes us morally queasy, but was entirely familiar to classical political thinkers. Socrates denounces tyranny in Book 9 of The Republic as the worst form of government conceivable: The tyrant is a monster of erotic excess, suspicion, and cruelty whose base passions mirror those of the most vulgar type of human being—hence the tyrant, as “demagogue” (leader of the masses), flows directly from the most debased version of democratic culture.

But that is not the whole story. Plato was well aware that certain kinds of men aspire to tyrannical power not merely so as to immerse themselves in witless pleasures, but to achieve supreme honor for themselves, including helping their own country to become great. In Book 4 of The Laws, the Athenian Stranger entertains the notion that a young man with an erotic passion for politics might be enlisted to found a just society. But having raised this possibility, Plato quickly retreats from it. The danger that such a young tyrant might prove, despite professing to be his country’s benefactor, to be an overbearing despot once his power is secured far outweighs the possible benefits that might come from enlisting such talents. For Plato, it is always better to rely on civic education to turn such men away from tyrannical longings and enlist them in the vigorous service of the common good.

What would never have occurred to Plato is the possibility that the tyrannical personality could ever vanish from political life. As the young Abraham Lincoln, a late if instinctive follower of the classical orientation, observed in his famous Lyceum Speech, the “tribe of the eagle”—Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon—will always be with us. For the classical political theorists Lincoln echoed, not only are such men always with us, but sometimes—in cases of dire national emergency, war or unrest—the very qualities of aggressive ambition that might ordinarily endanger a republic of equal citizens under law might sometimes be required when great issues are at stake. Aristotle argues in The Politics that, while republican self-government is ordinarily to be preferred to any form of despotism, on occasion a “god-like” man of supreme political genius may announce his claim in momentous times. While it is playing with fire, he concedes, sometimes this claim must be recognized. Modern political realists like Hobbes were also aware of these sorts of men. Indeed, Hobbes’ chief concern was to crush their arrogance for the sake of the social peace. But modern political science has increasingly changed from an awareness that such men are always roaming the dark perimeters of the social contract’s safety zone to the illusion that the entire world had become, or was soon to become, a place where the wolves would be tamed by comfortable living and personal freedom.

Here is where we face our dismal choice. Mubarak was a canny old Mafioso survivor who enriched himself and his ruling circle through American aid, but also kept Muslim fundamentalism in check, even defending (albeit cursorily) the Copts. Assad and his father were neither our nor Israel’s friends, but their foreign policy was based on Realpolitik—the need to unify the populace and assert leadership of the Arab world by being Israel’s chief foe—rather than the utopian vision of the fundamentalists. In recent years, given the Soviet Union’s collapse as a super-power, their threat to Israel amounted mainly to sabre-rattling. Those who in any way challenged the Assad clique’s monopoly on power faced savage reprisals. But those who knuckled under could live relatively ordinary lives. We know all too well, by contrast, that the new wave of jihadist tyrannies that was born with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is even more hostile to the West, because its leaders’ hatred of modernity cannot be compromised by an appeal to Realpolitik or the prospect of economic prosperity; at home, like previous totalitarian revolutions, it seeks not just obedience but the transformation of human nature.

Our lack of the ability or willingness to make a distinction between authoritarian tyrannies like Baathist Syria and totalitarian tyrannies like Iran has had a profound impact on recent American foreign policy. Vladimir Putin, for example, is a “rational actor” in the sense that, like a 19th-century militarist, he will use every means at his disposal to advance his and Russia’s power; what he lacks is a millenarian vision that would induce him to destroy us and himself if need be in its pursuit. By contrast, the Iranian leadership’s vision of realizing a worldwide Islamic utopia through nuclear apocalypse is the authentic mode of the revolutionary going back to Robespierre, Lenin, and Hitler, willing to stake all on global victory or self-immolation. In deciding whom to side with in the Syrian civil war and other such conflicts (for there are more to come, aimed at corrupt Arab regimes or even at Muslim regimes deemed insufficiently radical by even more extreme Salafists), we have to ask ourselves: Who is it more or less in our self-interest to back, if anyone?

Lest this sound pragmatic to the point of overlooking moral considerations, remember that, as between totalitarian tyrannies like Iran and “garden variety” tyrants (with a dash of modernization ideology) like the Baathist dictators, there is a greater likelihood that the latter can evolve into something better or at least less vicious, while their oppression of their own subjects is limited to enforcing obedience to their monopoly on political power at home. Jean Kirkpatrick’s great lesson—do not throw over an authoritarian ally if it increases the likelihood of a totalitarian successor—was one that Plato, Aristotle, and Lincoln would have immediately understood. Sadly, that lesson has been forgotten by those who cheered the Arab Spring and would now have America run pell-mell into the Syrian civil war without solid evidence that the fall of the house of Assad will bring something better.


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Waller R. Newell, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Carleton University, is the author of, most recently, Tyranny: A New Interpretation.

Waller R. Newell is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and co-founder of the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of Tyrants: Power, Injustice and Terror (2019) and Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger, which will be published in spring 2022.