I personally prefer Assad to the colonial dictators of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia but the fact of the matter is that he is a dictator. He was educated in the West and I think he illustrates an important point. Leaders who come to power establish personal or familial dictatorship unless they have an intense reason not to. The modern Western liberal ideology Assad absorbed during his studies in the West is not ideologically intense enough to spur Assad to disclaim personal power in favor of a bigger concept.
I find this very interesting because there was a time when Western liberalism was an intense revolutionary ideology. There was a tremendously strong current of idealism that caused George Washington to conceptualize the office of US president as a temporary one and to ensure that a process was established to select his successors that was both competitive and widely participatory.
For me personally, the single most impressive idea embodied in the US constitution is that birth on US territory, regardless of parentage, gives a person full US citizenship. I find that breath-taking. Children of illegal immigrants born in the United States are full US citizens who have the direct political power as well as the legal protections given to any other citizen. If this was not in the US constitution, and was proposed as a law in the United States today, I don't think it would get the votes of five percent of the US electorate.
The US may not be now, but the US was once a real revolutionary country long enough to establish that it is not ruled by dictators, long enough that when it was founded, its leaders strove to implement goals more important to them than personal or familial benefit.
Lenin, Stalin and Mao, call them evil, did not pass their power or prestige to their families. This is a real sacrifice that only results from their being molded by an intense ideology. Ataturk in Turkey was motivated by an ideology that may not have been global, but was intense enough to direct his energy and concern away from himself towards a Turkish nationalist vision. Of course Khomeini was a follower of an intense ideology. One that justified and even demanded that he sacrifice his interest for what his ideology presents as a greater good.
You can disagree on what a different ideology presents as the greater good, but for leaders who advance intense ideologies, there clearly is a greater good that causes the leaders and, importantly, the communities around them, to reject opportunities for the leader to benefit himself as an individual. An intense ideology, a good one or a bad one, is necessary for a leader to implement a competitive political system that may be able to produce later leaders capable of competing and remaining independent when faced with outside or hostile political powers.
But Assad did not take power in an ideological revolution. Assad does what the vast majority of current Western-educated people would do when given the position of dictator of a country. He keeps it. He rationalizes keeping it and rules based on an accommodating ideology that acknowledges some greater good but makes no demands.
What Assad does not do is put himself and his family into a position of dependence on wealthy outside powers as Mubarak and the leaders of the neo-colonial states in his region. The relationship between Assad and Iran is not remotely comparable to that between Mubarak and the US Congress. If Iran ordered Syria to help implement a siege of Lebanon which was limiting the diets and stunting the growth of Lebanese children, Assad would simply say no.
Mubarak and the dictators of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other US colonies do not even measure up to the weak current Western ideology that Assad conforms to. Many Westerners cannot appreciate how disgraceful the puppet dictators are because they are so appreciative of the support these dictators give Israel. But by any ideological standard, even the weakest ones, these dictators are truly pathetic.
The United States was once revolutionary and now is not. A question that raises for me is - is Iran still revolutionary? Ahmadinejad is clearly intensely ideological. Disagree with his ideology, but he clearly believes there is a greater good that he is called to sacrifice for.
As an aside, I do not get a sense of an intense ideology among the Iranian opposition movement. There is a hatred of Iran's clerics. It strikes me as comparable to US liberal hatred of conservatives. But I have not seen a vision expressed of how the world should be. Of course what I sense does not matter. If Iran's opposition becomes a majority movement it has the right to determine the direction of the country.
I'm actually confident that if the opposition develops an anti-clerical message that captures the imagination of most Iranians, they will succeed in establishing a non-religious government. Every poll I've seen, not only around election time but for years, has indicated that there is no majority of Iranians who do not believe there is too much religious interference in Iran's government. As long as it remains true that it is not a majority movement, the opposition has no prospect at all of taking power or forcing concessions from the regime. But back to Assad.
The New Yorker published a bunch of quotes by Assad. I found some interesting:
The civil war in Lebanon could start in days; it does not take weeks or months; it could start just like this. One cannot feel assured about anything in Lebanon unless they change the whole system.Lebanon really does need a one-person one-vote democratic system. The current system in which the Shiites are under-represented in the political system, but have a compensating organization in Hezbollah is clearly not optimal. Resistance by the United States and its clients to correcting this problem of Shiite under-representation will eventually be overcome formally. I'd rather it be sooner than later.
Hezbollah, like Hamas, is also intensely ideological which insulates its leaders from corruption to a significant degree. Over time, this is a substantial advantage in the political competitions these groups will find themselves in.
Assad is a like regular Westerner who found himself in power. Not one like Juan Cole, Richard Haass, Flynt Leverett or even Barack Obama who have spent entire careers conditioned by avoiding false charges of anti-Semitism and who would now, if they found themselves in control of a Middle Eastern state, happily and even eagerly devote that state's resources, regardless of the wishes of the people ruled, to the defense of the political majority of about five million Jews in Palestine - so that nobody could question their loyalty to the idea that there must be a Jewish homeland.
But a regular Westerner. With some sense of personal dignity and some identification with the Palestinians who mostly share his religion. But no ideological drive. No cause or greater good that would demand that he sacrifice his own position for the betterment of Syria or the advancement of any other vision. He's no Khomeini. He's no George Washington. But he does about what most other Westerners would do if one found himself in the position of dictator of a country.