Today’s 'I, Claudius' dictators


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on October 7, 2013.

The New Republic is out with an armchair psychological analysis of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, calling it an "intimate profile of Syria's mass murderer." It's the usual my-dad-was-a-dictator-but-I-wanted-to-marry-a-nice-Jewish-girl story about a shy misfit child who was thrust into the family killing business when his older brother immolated himself in a car accident. The real insight from the article is the "I, Claudius" twist: Bashar has been routinely misunderestimated his whole life, both as a child, a newbie dictator, and the ruthless wager of a civil war in which he unleashed chemical weapons on his own people, and that is why he has survived.

I'll stay away from Syrian or Levant politics, but there's clearly an indictment of the United States and other Western countries, as indicated in this line from the piece: 

For years, many Western analysts and diplomats have viewed Assad as malleable, even naïve. But his former aides describe a man who is accustomed to being underestimated and adept at exploiting those misperceptions...According to another former aide, Assad took pleasure in toying with the West.

It is America's classic diplomatic failing, a combination of wishful thinking (possibly leavened by flawed intelligence) and a desperate desire to solve things at the negotiating table despite the lack of any real common interest with the other side. It is the same thing we've seen for the past two decades with North Korea, and are now getting a taste of with Iran.

Yet the "I, Claudius" aspect is what we really keep falling for. It's happening currently in Pyongyang, where we all assumed that pudgy, basketball-loving nebbish Kim Jong Un was a lightweight compared with his ruthless father and grandfather. Truth be told, we thought the same thing about his father, the late Kim Jong Il, and felt superior enough to make him a parodied figure, most famously in Team America: World Police. Well, the Disney-loving young despot just brutally executed his uncle on the eve of his second anniversary in power, thereby removing the regime's second most-powerful man and quite possibly cutting China out of Pyongyang's councils.

We've fallen for the "I, Claudius" trick for decades, as far back as "Uncle Joe" Stalin in World War II. When ex-KGB head Yuri Andropov took over the Soviet Union in 1982, thrilled American media outlets reported that he liked jazz and whiskey; why, you could almost hear Soviet tanks rumbling back out of Eastern Europe.

The problem with all this, of course, is that we then back ourselves into a corner trying to make reality live up to our fantasy. American governments, for all their protestations, adhere to half of Ronald Reagan's famous prescription: They trust, but they rarely verify. And each time a despot breaks his word, the White House and State Department get all woozy. Once they recover, they plunge right back into the diplomatic "process."

Assad, like the Kims, has pushed the game one level further. In both cases, Washington drew red lines that subsequently seemed made of invisible ink. North Korea conducted nuclear tests and clearly tried to proliferate nuclear technology - to Syria, as it happens. Meanwhile, an irreparable chink in Barack Obama's armor was made by his failing to uphold his ultimatum on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Now, as the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. intelligence agencies are predicting that Assad will survive his civil war, and having stared down the president of the United States, will emerge as a symbol of tweaking the lion's tail. Nor should anyone be surprised that Damascus missed its first deadline for removing its chemical arms stockpile, an agreement brokered in the U.N. by Russia once Obama dropped any plan of militarily striking Assad for his chemical-weapons use. Not least among the winners in this tale will be Iran and Hezbollah, who poured arms and money into saving their client.

The next time the U.S. government announces it can work with an illiberal, murderous despot, and when the State Department assures us that they see "forward momentum," try not to laugh out loud. It's an American tradition to misjudge their man.


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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

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