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5. Dictators - Cause or Effect?

Are dictators the cause of dictatorship or is repression a response to political and economic conditions?

It is commonly believed that economic and political conditions in a country deteriorate once dictators take over. The Soviet Union is probably the most-cited proof of that assumption. The problem, in terms of proof, is that conditions are usually so bad before a dictator takes over that it is difficult to tell whether the dictator caused the problems or simply inherited an impossible situation.

The evidence suggests that dictators often act, not out of choice, but in response to the conditions they inherit.

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany

The modern notion that dictators, through their political decisions and policies, are the cause of political and economic failures, probably began with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Critics could point to Stalin's forced collectivization policies in agriculture and his central planning programs in the industrial area as high-profile examples of failure. The ordinary Russian did not appear significantly better off in the end.

What was often ignored or downplayed were historical conditions and events, prior to 1917. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 led to a campaign of political suppression by the secret police under Alexander III. Worker grievances would spark the Revolution of 1905 against Czar Nicholas II, only to be repeated in February 1917. Food shortages, strikes, and protests in Petrograd would lead to the Czar's abdication.

The story of Nazi Germany provides other lessons. Hitler came to power as a result of economic unrest. If his policies would lead to war, he did manage to reduce unemployment and improve economic conditions. By combining public works programs with military re-armament and allying himself with industrial manufacturers, he managed to bring stability on the economic front. As a case-study, Nazi Germany differed in one significant way from the Soviet Union. It suggested that economic success or failure was not necessarily tied to success (or failure) on the political side. The Soviet Union has been criticized as a failure, both politically and economically. Hitler, on the other hand, could point to economic achievements, which were not repeated on the political side. His track record on that front was little better than Stalin's. He would create the Gestapo and SS to deal with political opposition, establish Germany's first concentration camps, and have his political opponents murdered.

The imagined alternative

When it comes to measuring the success or failure of governments, various standards have been applied, depending on the situation and when the actions happened. Economic success has been measured by unemployment figures or the growth rate. When it comes to passing judgement on the morality of governmental actions, the standards seem to be continually shifting. Actions which happened in the distant or recent past are condemned in absolute terms. Evil is a term applied to Hitler and Nazi Germany for the six million people who died in the Holocaust. That label has also been applied to the actions of Pol Pot in Cambodia, as well as those of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union.

Taking military action against another country, in recent years, has created the "moral imperative" justification for war. If killing or repression within a country passed a certain level, morality required intervention. There was said to be a moral imperative to stop genocide, the mass killing of a certain group, if a country were engaged in that kind of behavior. This led to a reluctance to classify killings as genocide, since that might require intervention, as in Darfur. The massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 and the continued fighting in Kosovo was one of the reasons for the NATO air campaign against Serbia in 1999.

The main justification for the invasion of Iraq was the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction. The moral imperative argument was used as an additional justification. The activities of Saddam Hussein were so evil that it was necessary to remove him from power. He was condemned for the poison gas attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, in which an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 died., carried out by "Chemical Ali" against villagers fighting his regime. Yet, for all the notoriety of the attack, which reinforced the notion of an evil dictatorship, it played little role in his later trial for war crimes. There was also no mention of the soldiers he sacrificed in the 8-year Iran-Iraq War, a conflict which cost 1.5 million deaths in the two armies.

Echos of the condemnation of Saddam Hussein have been heard in the debate over intervention in Syria. In a conflict which has killed some 100,000 people, Bashar al-Assad has received special condemnation for "killing his own people." Other governments, in other places, have committed similar acts, without provoking such a high level of indignation. In August 2012, South African police fired on unarmed miners, killing 34 and wounding 78.

'If only dictators would refrain from acts of violence, then some sort of agreement could be negotiated' is an often-heard sentiment expressed by outside observers. Similar observations have been made on the economic side about the solution for dictatorships. Dictators could solve their economic problems if only they would relax government restrictions and let the free market create opportunities.

The assumption that dictators create more economic problems than they solve has been reinforced by conditions in any number of countries. If unrest in the Middle East draws attention to regimes there, governments in Asia, Africa, and South America have avoided scrutiny only because they are temporarily out of the spotlight. Recent events have suggested that economic problems are not limited to countries formally condemned as dictatorships. Protests, even riots, have occurred in Athens, the Paris suburbs, London, Rome, and even Stockholm. Brazil has had to deal with similar events, as has Turkey. The United States, the bastion of the free market, has seen street demonstrations and protests, as part of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.