Citizens International

The Enduring Fantasy of the Modernizing Autocrat

By Pankaj Mishra


Mohammed bin Salman is the latest in a long line of “courageous modernizers” who turned out to be vicious dictators. Why do people keep falling for it?

“Oil is flowing again into the free markets of the world,” The New York Times declared in 1954 as Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, visited the United States. The previous year, a C.I.A.-backed coup had overthrown Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and within a few years the C.I.A. would help found Savak, the shah’s diabolical security agency, responsible for the torture and disappearance of countless dissidents. According to The Times, however, Mossadegh was “where he belongs — in jail,” and Iran under its monarch was open to “new and auspicious horizons.”

The following year, The Atlantic Monthly hailed the shah as “an articulate and positive force,” summing up the tone of the American press coverage of a ruthless usurper decades before politicians, investors and journalists in the United States began to praise another oil-rich potentate and American ally: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who now stands accused of unspeakable crimes including the murder and dismemberment with a bone saw of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

For months, Prince Mohammed had been presented as a revolutionary figure in the American press. Jeffrey Goldberg, the present editor of The Atlantic, claimed that his advent was as momentous as the collapse of the Soviet Union. David Ignatius of The Washington Post returned from Saudi Arabia with the insight that the prince was bringing about “a more modern, more entrepreneurial, less hidebound and more youth-oriented society.”

A recent Western romance gone bad with an Arab princeling seems to have offered no cautionary lessons to Prince Mohammed’s cheerleaders. Until 2011, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, son of Libya’s dictator, was depicted as a staunch modernizer by many members of the Anglo-American establishment. He even reportedly managed to get Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, whom he described as a “close, personal friend,” to comment on his Ph.D. thesisat the London School of Economics. That illusion was shattered when Mr. Qaddafi ferociously suppressed his father’s opponents during the Arab Spring uprisings.

Why do Western elites succumb again and again to this fantasy of a youthful reformer and top-down modernizer in the East?

Doubtless, quasi-Westernized men and women from the exotic Orient flatter white self-images. These silver-tongued inheritors of wealth and power appear reassuringly familiar — suavely cosmopolitan folks who are au fait with the codes of bourgeois liberalism, unlike coarse nativists like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Prince Mohammed, for instance, could serenely supervise massacres in Yemen so long as he, exchanging his robes for blue jeans, promised to let Saudi women drive. Similarly, the Pakistani prime minster Benazir Bhutto, a Harvard and Oxford alumna, presented herself to her Western peers as a radical feminist even as she emboldened the Taliban in Afghanistan and courted Islamic fundamentalists at home while looting her country’s treasury.

Acquiring mansions in Surrey, England and Palm Beach County, Fla., splurging at Cartier and Bulgari, Ms. Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, helped strengthen a widespread perception in the postcolonial world: that its expensively educated rulers are as venal as they are socially liberal. In the West, however, Ms. Bhutto could count upon, right up to her assassination in 2007, her Ivy League-Oxbridge networks to present her as a valiant modernizer of her intractably backward people. Mr. Ignatius of The Washington Post, fondly recalling Ms. Bhutto in a Rolling Stones T-shirt at Oxford in the 1970s, claimed after her death that she was “the most potent Pakistani voice for liberalism,” who had managed to embrace the modern world with “confidence and courage.”

The confident and courageous Westernizer was also the role that Syria’s British-educated president, Bashar al-Assad, and his British-born wife Asma, were initially allotted in the Western press. The singer Sting as well as Secretary of State John Kerry socialized with Syria’s glamorous first couple in Damascus. Just as the Arab Spring got underway in 2011, Vogue published a fawning profile of Ms. Assad, describing her as “the very freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

Strategic concerns, of course, also weigh on minds enchanted by the magnetic princes and princesses of the East. For many Beltway pundits as well as for President Trump, Prince Mohammed’s loathing of Iran and tenderness for Israel override all other considerations. It is also true that oil needs to keep flowing in free markets, and, as with the Shah of Iran, there is much money to be made from selling things to the prince that his country doesn’t need.

Still, slack private morality, cynical realpolitik, naked avarice and craven celebrity worship do not fully explain the myopia that excuses grotesque crimes until they become impossible to conceal. This weakness for quasi-enlightened despotism in the global South stems from a visceral fear of politically disaffected masses. Moreover, the unleashing of lethal force against them is not just an occasional moral lapse. It is a preferred way to discipline and punish a potentially volatile opposition.

Certainly, powerful institutions and individuals in the West eagerly pushed manifestly coercive projects of Westernization so long as the game is not given away by some conspicuous atrocity. For instance, Sanjay Gandhi, a self-proclaimed devotee of free markets and the de facto ruler of India in the mid-1970s, not only put his political opposition in prison, he also presided over the forced sterilization of millions of poor men in a program of population control aggressively promoted in the Third World by the Ford Foundation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

As Sanjay’s mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, suspended fundamental rights, more than six million men were sterilized in India in a year. Visiting a terrorized India in 1976, the World Bank’s president, Robert McNamara, hailed the Gandhis’ “disciplined, realistic approach” and the general junking of “socialist ideologies.”

Biopolitical violence has been unleashed with special vigor against those who resist Western interests in oil-rich Middle East. Indeed, the American shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq, and the accompanying regime of torture and rendition, was designed around the assumption that brutality was the only way to discipline Arabs. One senior White House official recalled a meeting with the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, who told the Bush administration that “in that part of the world, nothing matters more than resolute will and force.” In this view, “The Arab Mind” (the title of a 1973 book by an Israeli academic that became a guiding text for neoconservative adventurers and the American military in the Middle East) was unusually impressed, and easily cowed, by extreme cruelty.

Accordingly, successive American presidents have waged lawless wars in the East; poring over “kill lists,” they have ordered extrajudicial executions by drones. More recently, one of the region’s richest countries, Saudi Arabia, has tried to starve near-destitute Yemen into submission, with the help of a cutting-edge arsenal supplied by some of the world’s leading liberal democracies.

Many fans of Prince Mohammed in the West are now scrambling to disavow him. But he cannot be so easily distinguished from his groupies in the American establishment. The prince is only the latest, if pitifully crude, exponent of shock-and-awe savagery that many Western elites have long deemed vital to the pacification of intransigent non-Westerners. And there is nothing exceptional, in the extensive moral squalor created by them abroad and deepened now by President Trump at home, about Prince Mohammed’s own apparent response to a mild critic: exterminate the brute and mutilate his corpse.

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