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International Protest and the Bedouin of the Negev

Paul Pillar

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has been an occasion to recall the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. That struggle combined the efforts of domestic opponents of the apartheid regime with what eventually became an enormous international coalition of opposition that included governments—which imposed sanctions on South Africa—and nongovernmental movements. The breadth of that international opposition contrasted with the relative narrowness and weakness of opposition to some current injustices, including ones involving apartheid practices.

On Thursday, however, opposition to such practices got at least a tentative boost, when the government of Israel announced it was shelving for the moment a plan for mandatory relocation of tens of thousands of Arab Bedouin from their historic homelands in the Negev desert. Many of the Bedouin, who are Israeli citizens and a subset of the larger population of Arab Israelis, have long lived a largely off-the-grid existence in the Negev in what the Israeli government considers “unrecognized” villages. Forcibly relocating them would be a blatant violation of human rights. The Israeli government asserts that the purpose of the move would be to improve the Bedouin's lives by bringing them into a more modern situation. But unfavorable experiences of other Bedouin who had already been brought into “recognized” towns, where they had a similar lack of services and also found it more difficult to live the pastoral life to which they were accustomed, did not make the prospective move popular among those who would be affected. In fact, Bedouin leaders strongly opposed the move. Former minister Benny Begin, a principal architect of the plan, acknowledged when making this week's announcement that he had never consulted with the Bedouin themselves.

The Jericho-based journalist Jonathan Cook describes the relocation plan as—and quotes Israeli leaders as saying the same thing—in effect a continuation of ethnic cleansing that took place during the 1948 war for Israeli independence. The plan to “concentrate,” in Begin's words, the Bedouin would clear land for the construction of new towns open only to Jews. Cook notes that the new Jewish towns would be “dispersed as widely as possible in contravention of Israel’s own national master plan, which requires denser building inside existing communities to protect scarce land resources.”

Two caveats qualify this week's good news about this issue. One is that the shelving of the plan may only be temporary. There is a good chance it will reappear, perhaps in slightly modified form, once world attention has drifted elsewhere. The other is that even this temporary halt was due partly to resistance from elements among the Israeli Right, who thought the plan lacked sufficient detail and was too generous to the Bedouin.

International opposition, however, certainly had something to do with this development. This shows how such opposition, even when short of what came to be mobilized against the South African version of apartheid, can make a difference. In particular, it shows the difference it can make against other aspects of the Israeli version of apartheid, which affects far more Arabs than only the Negev Bedouin.

Much of the international opposition came from Europe; significantly less came from the United States. Many British elites lent their name to the cause. The lesser involvement of Americans no doubt is linked to the well-known role of the Israeli government in American politics. But the difference might also be related to different aspects of national history. Maybe many in Britain, when they hear of Bedouin, think of the ones with whom, and on behalf of whom, T.E Lawrence fought. By contrast, a close parallel to what the Israelis have been planning to do to their Bedouin is what the United States did to its Native Americans: relocating and concentrating an indigenous, semi-nomadic population in a way that largely destroyed its way of life and opened up land for the dominant ethnic group. There is a lot of guilt about that now, but not enough to wipe the slate clean; look at what the football team in the national capital is still named.

TopicsHuman RightsPublic Opinion RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesUnited Kingdom

The God-King View of the Presidency

The Buzz

President Obama shook hands with Cuban dictator Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral yesterday. Memorials for iconic world leaders seem to always produce such incidents - for example, the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II saw Israeli president Moshe Katsav shake hands with Iranian president Mohammed Khatami. (Born two years and about an hour’s drive apart in central Iran, the two leaders found themselves seated just feet from one another, and had an exchange in Persian.) Katsav and Khatami came under fire for their alleged grip-and-grin, with Khatami quoted denying the encounter in the official press - “This claim is like other baseless claims made by the Zionist media in the past.” And Obama’s brief grab with the lesser Castro brought criticism, too - Cuban American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called it “nauseating” and “a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” while Senator Marco Rubio said that Obama “should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba.”

Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio were echoing a theme in the U.S. foreign-policy discussion: What level of nicety should the president show to nasty leaders? It has to be more than zero: after all, if diplomats could never meet with those with whom we don’t get along, the most important diplomacy could not be done. Our embassies would shutter themselves, to be replaced with Bureaus of Consular Affairs, Cultural Relations and Cocktails. Yet Ros-Lehtinen is right that it can sometimes be a mistake for an American president to meet publicly with another head of state. America is not merely one country among many - mighty in its own right, it also heads the world’s most powerful network of alliances and commands significant moral authority. Little could prove a leader’s importance more than an audience with the leader of the free world.

Conversely, as the head of a sovereign and powerful state, our president must never appear deferential to other leaders, especially not to enemies; given the utility of America’s reputation as a generally benevolent country, our president should also avoid needlessly tarnishing that reputation. And when fragile or multiple governments hold authority, the questions become thornier. To give up on the fading Republic of China in 1949 would have been a stab in the back to an ally; to continue to recognize Taipei as the legitimate government of all China in 2013 would be a pointless absurdity.

A recent article by Jay Nordlinger in National Review took the preservation of presidential pomp to excess. Nordlinger complained that several of Obama’s recent statements on Iran have referred to Ali Khamenei as the “Supreme Leader.” “Was that really necessary, for the president of the United States?...[Obama] also referred to the country - twice - as ‘the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ as the mullahs style the country. Iranian democrats, many of whom are in jail, don’t see it that way.” Nordlinger goes on, “Referring to Rouhani, I have put ‘president’ in quotation marks, because ‘president’ is one of those titles that non-democrats, or anti-democrats, like to claim for themselves. It puts them on equal footing with, say, the president of the United States.”

This being a nation which, unlike Iran, has a free press, Nordlinger may refer to Khamenei, Iran and Rouhani however he pleases. Yet it would be silly for the U.S. government to follow his lead - rather than avoiding deference, it would be avoiding reality. The government of Iran has been in continuous power for more than three decades, surviving a horrific war, economic ruin and internal intrigue. For better, but mostly for worse, the regime is not going anywhere. Denial will not change it, and it is a needless source of friction in a relationship that already has enough troubles.

Further, refusing to recognize Iran’s government would send mixed signals. Rouhani rose to the presidency in an election which, for its many flaws, was at least not predetermined. And the governmental system that calls itself the “Islamic Republic” at least operates in vague accord with a constitution, and the man who calls himself Supreme Leader at least operates in vague accord with his position’s prescribed role in that constitution. Many countries cannot say this about their own systems. As vile and lawless as Iran’s actions often are, its present system of government offers a better foundation for eventual democracy than, say, Saudi Arabia’s.

This is hardly the first time Obama’s been attacked for his handling of relations with Iran and other unpleasant countries. As a candidate in 2008, his proposal for a meeting “without preconditions” with leaders of Iran and other rogue states became a focal point, first for Hillary Clinton and then for John McCain. Of course, some preconditions are always necessary in talks - venue, agenda, media presence, etc. - which meant that the Obama campaign had to do some retroactive exegesis. But Obama’s critics over Iran then, and over the Castro handshake now, take Ros-Lehtinen’s insight to an extreme. In this view, for the president to meet with a leader is a concession. The president’s presence is a gift and his absence is, in candidate Obama’s own words, a “punishment.” And when the president calls a leader by a title, it validates that title. We might call this the God-King View of the Presidency, for in practical terms there’s little daylight between it and how we’d conduct diplomacy if we thought our president were, say, an incarnation of Horus. It is, to put it lightly, a rather unrepublican view - and, given that the exalted one is presently Obama, an un-Republican view to boot.

We’d be wise to ditch the God-King View, while keeping the gravity of the office in mind. (Yes, Mr. President, that means no more bowing to foreign monarchs.) Perhaps we can take a page from Israeli president Shimon Peres. Asked recently if he’d be willing to meet Rouhani, he said, “Why not? I don’t have enemies; it’s not a matter of a person but of a policy. The purpose is to convert enemies into friends.” He expressed appropriate skepticism about the good faith of the Iranian government, noting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “spreads terror all over the world and I’m not so sure they support the president.” Yet he concluded, “We have to see the balance of the situation.” Iran rejected Peres’ overture in rude terms. Yet Peres gave himself and his country the moral high ground. Peres’ approach is the correct one: while there are ethical and tactical elements to be navigated in meeting and addressing foreign leaders, these elements must always be grounded in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Our own democratic system and our own freedoms are not endangered by a meeting between our president and a dictator. But they are if we start to think of our president as a god, and our diplomacy as his gift.

TopicsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsUnited States

Big Data, Public and Private

Paul Pillar

The collection and maintaining of huge files of information on our communications, our movements, our online searching, and much else about our individual lives is, as Laura Bate notes, hardly something that the National Security Agency or any other arm of government originated. By far the greater share of the assembling, and the exploitation, of storehouses of data about the activities of individual Americans occurs in the private sector. So why should there be so much fuss about what a government agency may be doing along this line, while there is equanimity about the much greater amount of such activity by non-government enterprises? Is there something intrinsic to government that ought to make us more worried about such data mining? Let us consider the possible bases for concluding that there might be.

Potentially the strongest such basis has to do with the presence or absence of a free market, and related to that, whether or not the activity of the individuals on which data are being collected is voluntary. When I use a search engine on the Internet I am voluntarily using a free service in return for being exposed to some advertising and allowing the operator of the search engine or my Internet service provider to collect, and exploit, data about my interests. Most interactions with government agencies and especially security agencies do not involve as much voluntarism. So maybe it is logical to be more persnickety for this reason about what government entities are doing.

That makes sense as far as it goes. But in practice the logic quickly runs up against the fallacy of equating the private sector with free markets and free will. If I want land-line telephone service at my home (and I very much do), I'm stuck with Verizon. I am forced to let Verizon collect comprehensive records of my calls—the “metadata” we've heard so much about. And of course, if someone at Verizon wanted to listen in on the substance of my calls that could be done as well, although it is a reputable company and I would be surprised if that were happening. The point is that there is much less free will and free choice in private sector data-generating activity than we might like to think, and in many cases little or no more free choice than when a government agency is involved.

This is true not just of local utility monopolies such as land-line telephone systems but to a large degree of other services in the Internet age. Some such services, including online access itself, have quickly transitioned from being seen as nifty innovations to being regarded as necessities. And again, free choice is often much less than we would like. This fact was recognized with the antitrust action against Microsoft, which was using its commanding position in operating systems to muscle into a bigger share of the market for browsers and other applications.

When there is enough market competition for users theoretically to vote with their feet—or with their fingers on the keyboard—if they are worried about what is being done with data collected on them, in practice any market correction mechanism would be very slow and clumsy. Imagine that a rogue employee at Google started using information about embarrassing web searches to ruin the reputations of particular people he was out to get. If that sort of abuse happened enough times, then perhaps significant numbers of users would abandon Google's wonderfully effective search engine in favor of Bing or something else, and Google would become less able to sell as much advertising as it does now. But the corrective process would be slow and awkward, and in the meantime a bunch of people would have their reputations ruined.

Another possible basis for distinguishing the amassing of data in the public and private sectors is to ask what controls or checks apply to each. Here there is indeed a big difference, and the difference is in the direction of there being far more controls and checks applied to government agencies than to private sector enterprises. For the security agencies there is the whole legal structure, dating back to the 1970s and strengthened since then, of restrictions and Congressional oversight. Nothing remotely resembling those sorts of external controls exists for data mining in the private sector. Then there are all the internal checks and controls, which as Bate mentions in the case of NSA are extensive. These include compartmentation of information—second nature to the security agencies, which use compartmentation to protect sensitive national security information even if there is no issue of the personal privacy of U.S. citizens. NSA senior management says publicly that only 22 people at their agency are able to query the telephone metadata that are of concern. How many people at Verizon can do something with the comprehensive record of my telephone calls? I don't have the faintest idea, and probably no one else outside Verizon does either.

Another question to ask is how the public and private sectors may differ regarding the potential for abuse, in terms of not just access and capability but also incentives. For most conceivable types of individual abuse, there is no reason to expect the incentives for individual abuse to appear more in one type of organization than the other. A potential abuser thinking of, say, looking at an ex-spouse's calling record may pop up in either the public or private or sector. Disincentives to this kind of abuse probably are stronger in the security agencies, given the regular reinvestigation regimen that people with security clearances undergo.

As for incentives that are more institutional than individual, there are further differences. As an example of a mistaken and destructive use of data mining, think of an innocent person being put on a no-fly list and, as a result, having his business damaged because of his inability to fly. Government agencies have no conceivable incentive for this to happen. For them, false positives merely add clutter and make it more difficult to accomplish their assigned mission, such as keeping real terrorists off airplanes. And when a mistake of this sort does happen and becomes public, such as putting Ted Kennedy on a no-fly list, it is an embarrassment to the agencies responsible. In the private sector, however, there always are commercial and financial interests in play. Those interests may well provide an incentive—such as for competitors in the same line of business—to damage the business of someone else.

In addition to all of these criteria, one also should ask what benefit or greater good is going to the person about whom data are being collected, as well as perhaps to others. What is being bought, in other words, in return for whatever risks or intrusions are involved in amassing the data? With the sort of data mining that NSA does, the presumed benefit is in the form of greater protection against terrorists, or perhaps other contributions to national security. There has been debate, of course, about just how much of this type of benefit is being obtained, but at least the objective is one that most Americans would consider important. The corresponding answer for private sector use of big data is harder to come up with. It would seem to consist of something like better tailoring of ads that appear on the user's computer screen, which might streamline online shopping. Nice, perhaps, but hardly in the same league as national security.

Two overall conclusions follow. One is that there are substantially stronger reasons to worry about the collection and use of big data in the private sector than in government agencies.

The other is that the prevailing pattern of public consternation about this subject being nevertheless focused on government agencies indicates that the consternation is not driven by any careful consideration of risks, costs, benefits, incentives, and choices. Instead it is driven by a crude image of government agencies, and especially certain types of government agencies, as Big Brothers worthy of suspicion or even loathing. Sentiments toward private sector enterprises vary, but the biggest contrast to the image of government is enjoyed by the titans of Silicon Valley and the enterprises they run, having the status of heroes.

The crudeness driving the sentiments is one of the main reasons (inconsistency over time in what the American public expects from the government agencies involved is another big reason) we should not be surprised if morale at a place such as NSA is low.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Gay Rights as Foreign Policy

The Buzz

“The mistreatment of the LGBT community is rightly viewed as a canary in the coalmine: a warning that democracy has gone off the tracks.” So say Andras Simonyi, once a top Hungarian diplomat, and Jamie Kirchick, a prominent conservative writer, in an essay on how the United States should respond to Russia’s new antigay laws, which have created an uproar in the West. These laws and the upcoming Sochi Olympics have put a spotlight on the treatment of gays in Russia.

Simonyi and Kirchick see laws like this as a fundamental “dividing line between liberal and illiberal societies...a litmus test of societal decency.” “This is going to be the dividing line between grown-up nations and those that will be left behind,” said Simonyi on Friday. Speaking at a panel entitled “LGBT Rights: A Geostrategic Issue for Democracies,” the pair urged the United States to use visa and asset freezes under 2012’s Magnitsky Act against Russian individuals involved in “gross violations” of the human rights of gays. And they warned that Russia intends to use gay rights as a wedge to strengthen its influence in its neighborhood, at America’s expense. “The homophobia of this regime is part of the neoimperialism of the Russian government,” said Kirchick Friday. “They’re using it to stir up anti-EU sentiment in Ukraine right now.... The Putin regime can tell Ukrainians, ‘you wanna protect Orthodox Christianity, you stay with Moscow.’ And he’s using this all throughout the former Soviet space. So this is a geostrategic issue for him, which is why it needs to be a geostrategic issue for us.” One panelist at the Friday event even complained that the State Department “appears to care more about the START treaty [reducing nuclear arms], the Syrian chemical weapons ban, and so forth, than it does about democracy in Ukraine or LGBT rights.”

This kind of approach to gay rights in foreign policy has many problems—problems identical to any human-rights-based foreign policy. First, should we, as the last panelist suggested, place the human rights of foreigners on foreign soil on par with grave issues like the threat of weapons of mass destruction? Are gay rights, and human rights more broadly, truly “geostrategic”? Second, do we as a country have the moral standing on gay rights to create, as the panelists repeatedly suggested, “teaching moments” with other states, with us in the role of teacher? Third, a closely related matter: do we intend to internationalize a newly acquired feature of our culture? Fourth, the most important of all, would Kirchick and Simonyi’s approach actually improve gay rights in places like Russia?

Those who advocate a prominent role for human rights in American foreign policy usually embrace a common argument—that disrespect for human rights at home is a warning sign that a country will promote instability beyond its borders, while countries pushed to respect human rights will behave more constructively. Thus, for instance, the Rwandan genocide was followed by a bloodletting throughout the African Great Lakes region, with the Rwandan government (drawn from the side of the victims) an active sponsor of violence in neighboring states. Thus, Saudi Arabia rules repressively at home and supports Islamic extremism abroad. Thus, Nazi Germany went from Kristallnacht to launching a continental war and an international campaign of genocide.

Yet human rights remain separable from international aggression. Even a human-rights-free approach to international security is plausible—for example, if the United States were to ignore domestic human-rights violations altogether, but respond forcefully and resolutely to aggression across borders, the world would surely not come to an end. And human rights certainly deserve a role in U.S. foreign policy. Our closest allies share our values; relations with allies that don’t are testier and more reversible. We would like to think of ourselves as a force for good in the world, and our global leadership is strengthened when other states see us as a lawful, fair and generally benevolent power. Yet that doesn’t mean that we must make human rights a central priority, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should be willing to put vital interests like stopping the spread of nuclear weapons on equal footing with them.

In the case of gay rights, all this is even clearer. Kirchick and Simonyi’s claim that gay rights are a “canary in a coal mine” for democracy is questionable. Most democracies for much of their history have had antigay laws that were backed by antigay cultures. It is a moral outrage, for example, that Britain’s sodomy laws drove a national hero, computer scientist Alan Turing, to suicide. Yet Britain at the time was a stable and fully democratic country, and it was a reliable ally of the United States. We zealously punished and marginalized gay Americans for decades—and committed more serious and systematic abuses against African Americans, Japanese Americans, and others. Yet to argue that the United States was not a democracy prior to, say, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011 is mere dogmatism.

A second point. With widespread support for gay rights having arisen in America only in the last few years, it would be strange for us to claim moral authority over other states. Our own president, after all, opposed gay marriage until 2012, and his multiyear “evolution” on the issue reeked of political opportunism. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) with strong bipartisan support in 1996; our executive branch defended its lawfulness until 2011; and it was only put out of action—by a 5-4 split decision in the Supreme Court, not by a vote in Congress—in June of this year. And this law had real and severe effects on gay Americans—for example, on the binational couple in this video. One of the panelists, former Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch, even said that “we had a law...that was as horrible as any law you can ever imagine short of having to kill gay people for being gay...it said you people, because of who you are, will get no federal benefits.... Technically Russia, up until we got rid of DOMA, was better than us on the books. So I don’t think we should have a tremendous amount of arrogance about how we treat our gay people.”

While Birch’s reading of DOMA is rather extreme—and failing to extend federal recognition to gay couples, however wide those benefits may be, is simply not on par with what Russia and other countries are actively doing—it would be strange for us to make Russia’s odious measure a central sticking point in the relationship given our own recent history. Other countries know our views and laws have changed so recently, and will discount our claims of urgency and moral authority accordingly.

Third, we must recognize that the issue of gay rights is laden with cultural baggage. Our foreign policy already asks countries to adopt our political system (heck, we even criticize the human-rights situation in Sweden). Should it also ask other countries to adopt our culture—indeed, a feature of our culture that very large numbers of Americans (myself not included) still oppose?

This is closely tied to the final point, the practical impact of policy goals like those suggested by Simonyi and Kirchick. If the United States, through legal measures like the Magnitsky Act and through loud public rhetoric, attempts to push other states to become more gay-friendly, will that make life easier or harder for gays in those countries? Will it make their eventual acceptance more or less likely? Audience members at the panel noted that the prospect of Western legal measures is a deeply divisive issue among LGBT activists in Russia for this very reason.

Kirchick and Simonyi suggest that the Russian elite longs to be seen as Western, as civilized, and that they can accordingly be pushed toward the West’s new position on gay rights. Yet opposition to gay rights permeates Russian society—even if the elite moves, much work will remain. And the United States cannot push Russia in a vacuum, with no consequences. There will inevitably be backlash if a country widely perceived as a rival attempts to tell Russia that its values are wrong. Some of the backlash will be legal. Russia responded to the Magnitsky Law by banning adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens. European countries that have considered Magnitsky-like measures have been threatened with a similar ban. These adoption bans do far more harm to vulnerable Russians—children seeking adoption—than they do to Americans, who can simply adopt from other countries. Moscow has shown itself willing to cut off its nose to spite its face. If we take firm measures intended to protect Russian gays, we should not be surprised if the Russians take measures that harm them—and Russia has far more power to harm its gay citizens than we have to help them. Among the people, the practical consequence of a Western progay campaign could be even worse. Extreme nationalists are behind the most serious antigay violence. Nationalists, as a rule, do not appreciate other countries telling them what to do. They might only step up their kidnappings and torture.

But it is the alleged geostrategic element of gay rights where Kirchick and Simonyi’s proposal threatens the most severe backlash. As Kirchick pointed out, pro-Russian forces in places like the Ukraine have publicly promoted the notion that associating with Europe will lead to gay marriage. Kirchick suggests that this is a deliberate move by Putin and Russia, and that because Putin has made gay rights a geostrategic issue, we must as well. Yet this would mean fighting Putin on ground where he clearly thinks he has the advantage. And it would confirm nationalist narratives that the decadent West wishes to impose its values on the Slavic world. To paraphrase Lenin, we would be heightening the contradictions between East and West. Those who favor friendly relations with the West but who hold traditional attitudes about sexuality might be driven away. It’s hard to see how all this is good for America’s interests—or for Russia’s gays.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Stefan Botez. CC BY-SA 2.5.

TopicsHuman Rights RegionsRussiaUnited States

Bashar al-Assad's Sick Sense of Humor

The Buzz

Here Bashar al Assad goes again. Joining the throngs of world leaders eulogizing the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the Syrian presidency recently released a statement on its Facebook page declaring that Mandela’s “history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world, in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.” Emanating from the regime of a dictator who has presided over the multi-year – and seemingly unending – slaughter of “his own people,” few could overlook the statement’s profoundly offensive irony.

The absurdity of such a statement being issued by the Syrian regime suggests that Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke – and indeed, he is. What’s more is that this is only the latest iteration in a longstanding pattern of caustic comedy by the Duck of Damascus.

In October, after the Norwegian Nobel Committee made its regrettable decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons", Assad proclaimed that the prize “should have been mine” because of his acceptance of the Russian-sponsored plan to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal. After the deal was struck, Assad even had the audacity to ask the UN to equip his troops and supply armored trucks to ship out Syria's chemical materiel, a request that was rightly rejected outright: “There is no way that the regime will be supplied with equipment that could be used by the army to kill more innocent Syrians,” said one Western diplomat.

When massive demonstrations erupted in Egypt last summer against then president Mohammed Morsi, Mr. Assad, oddly enough, came out in support of the Egyptian protestors. “This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests,” he said. Assad’s information minister, Omran Zoabi, told the Syrian state-owned news agency SANA that the “crisis can be overcome if Mohamed Mursi realizes that the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people reject him and are calling on him to go.” Again with the hypocritical irony.

Not all of Assad's wisecracks are intended for public consumption, though. In a series of leaked emails composed over the last few years, written both before and during the uprising, Assad ridiculed the notion of domestic political reform in Syria, mocked the Arab League monitors who were then in Syria, and made a number of sexist jokes.

People generally tell jokes in an attempt to make others laugh. After all, a joke isn’t a joke if the only person laughing is the one who told it. Yet, as should be abundantly clear by now, Assad doesn’t want us to laugh with him – he wants to laugh at us. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Dictators have long excelled at stridently expressing their defiance and perceived unassailability, and Assad is no exception. What sets him apart from many of history’s other tyrants is his penchant for doing so via twisted quips and banter.

What sets Assad apart from real comedians, though, is that he is the opposite of funny. But so far, the joke appears to be on everyone else.

TopicsPsychologySociety RegionsSyria

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