Hope springs: Strong-man rule got punched in the nose in late 2022. The world-wide trend toward autocracy and away from democracy and human rights has been paused. How so? And for how long?
In the U.S., proto-autocrat Donald Trump came up a loser, big-time, when candidates spouting his absurd rigged 2020 election claims whiffed out in the November midterm elections, thanks to record voter turnout. In Brazil, Trumpist Jair Bolsonaro lost re-election to the presidency; though post-election violence was threatened, the pugilistic Bolsonaro did concede.
Meanwhile, in autocracy’s own spheres of oppression — China and Iran — citizen protests have ignited, powerfully: in China over draconian COVID lockdowns, in Iran over the death of a Kurdish woman killed by the “morality” police. China’s protests won’t likely last, not in Xi Jinping’s police state, but Iran’s protests continue, morphing from rage over women’s rights to a nationwide call for the end of the extremist regime.
Also meanwhile, the World Cup brings much-needed respite to billions around the world.
But not for a minute should we forget: Brute power doesn’t sleep, nor does its enforcement apparatus. Autocrats the world over, exploiting their momentum — even as the world praises itself for staying the autocrat’s hand (temporarily) — press ahead with their inhuman programs.
Most notoriously: Russia’s Vladimir Putin powers on with his criminal war on Ukraine, now in its tenth month.
Putin, oblivious to History having evolved beyond the Age of Conquest, is trying to retake the crown jewel of the old Russian imperium, Ukraine, which declared independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. In this crime, Putin has shredded every hard-fought advance in “the rules of war” codified in the Geneva Conventions: Civilians are now targeted, as he rains destruction on houses and farms, apartment buildings, hospitals, schools. Compounding war’s trauma, he’s reintroduced torture and rape as instruments of war. Mass graves are being unearthed around Ukraine.
And now, with winter’s worst coming on, Putin aims at Ukraine’s infrastructure, an abstract term masking life-or-death services. Principal target: the electrical grid, which keeps the lights on and the heat going and the calls incoming and outgoing, as well as railroads, bridges, and, to literally poison the well, dams and reservoirs. Moreover, Putin continues to menace Ukraine’s nuclear plants, chancing the unthinkable.
In a stinging speech to the U.N. Security Council, Ukraine’s heroic young president, Volodymyr Zelensky, called out Putin for descending to “energy terror.” Zelensky also decried the outrage of a “terrorist” state exercising veto power in the U.N. “The world should not be held hostage to an international terrorist.”
In its defense, Ukraine now fires missiles into Russia itself, having until now, per its NATO allies’ demands, restricted itself to its own borders. Putin cries “Foul,” which coming from the aggressor is ludicrous. (Bullies can’t abide their prey resorting to self- defense.) Also ludicrous: French president Emmanuel Macron’s urging that Putin be given “security guarantees” if he ceases war and negotiates. As Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte told “PBS NewsHour”: “This is nonsense!” Why the concern that a “terrorist state” (Russia) be granted guarantees? As she noted, “Nobody threatened Russia.” Leave it to a neighbor of Russia to see motive most clearly.
That motive, clearly, is malign: It is genocidal. Putin aims not only to take out Ukraine’s military capacity and democratic institutions, he aims to erase Ukraine root and branch — its people; its children, untold numbers of whom have been “transported” to Russia for adoption; and its culture — its museums, theatres, libraries. The art museum of the city of Kherson has been completely ransacked by Russian troops, leaving despair in their wake.
The point is, the tragic point is: This genocidal war goes on without the aggressor’s hand being stayed in any material way. Yes, the West and NATO have united and funneled oceans of arms and aid to Ukraine. And, yes, the Ukrainians have valiantly prosecuted their own defense. And, yes, direct conflict between Russia and the U.S. must be avoided, lest World War III break out.
And yet, and yet, and yet: The genocide proceeds. The Ukrainian people are consigned to unfathomable suffering: Civilians are bombed or left to freeze, children are abducted and traumatized, bodies are thrown into mass graves. This suffering is beyond unjust. That the Ukrainians are fighting the West’s fight — for independence, democracy, human rights — should be factored into the West’s every council.
As it nets out: Until he is met with a superior counter-force, the aggressor gets functional impunity. Putin can wage his criminal war with impunity. Thus barbarism gets normalized.
But of course, this has always been the way throughout human history: Brute force forces its way, brutally. We like to think instruments like international law and protocol protect us, but only latterly, when war crimes are brought to an international tribunal. The Geneva Conventions with their rules of war apply only if all parties agree to them (Putin doesn’t). Defense alliances like NATO are a bulwark against all-out barbarism — presumably Putin would not relish all-out war with the West — but still, Putin operates with impunity. (One prays that, like China or Iran, civil protest broke out in Russia, giving Putin pause.)
Given, then, the functional impunity a Putin can exact from Chaos, a Chaos that again he incited, it is all the more lamentable when such thugs have their impunity handed them on a platter.
Such is the case with Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince whom the U.S. cites for ordering the murder and dismembering of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Now the U.S. — that is, the State Department — acquiesced with a U.S. court’s query to grant the crown prince, known as MBS, “sovereign immunity,” a status that he’s long sought but in no way deserves.
Why did U.S. State act as it did, what was the compelling reason? The unconvincing responses relate to MBS’ youth (the U.S. must deal with him for decades to come) and “compliance” with international law. But: If international law allows sovereign leaders to order the murder of their nationals, either at home or abroad (Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul, Turkey, in the Saudi consulate), then such law should be amended — or else divine right of kings is reinstated. Legal experts are baffled: A Brookings Institution senior fellow calls it “a denial of justice to appease a reckless and dangerous murderer.”
This unforced error of the Biden administration, only the latest error in our response to the Khashoggi killing, makes a mockery of America’s claim to be a stalwart champion of human rights. And this error puts a target on the backs of journalists who dare to unmask the malign among those wielding power — even if those journalists report from abroad. Khashoggi triggered MBS’ ire when, as a Washington Post columnist, he wrote critically of the crown prince. (Bullies can’t bear criticism, thus eliminate the critic.)
Another unforced error: In American culture especially, it is thought courageous to “go there” in depicting barbarism. But what’s courageous about describing baseline reality? More compelling are the Zelenskys and Khashoggis endeavoring to right this cruel world.
Strongmen-rulers need their lives made more difficult — much more difficult — by the “rules-based international order.” First and foremost, their freelance impunity to commit crimes and atrocities must be curtailed. How to do that remains the work of hearts and minds to come. Until then, the human suffering continues.