Thursday, October 23, 2003

It's not terribly surprising that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad turned his speech to the Islamic Summit Conference into a foul anti-Semitic diatribe about how "the Jews rule this world by proxy". After all, he has a long history of anti-Semitic pronouncements. Nor is it exactly shocking that the delegates attending the conference gave him a standing ovation. After all, anti-Semitic hate literature has been a staple in public discourse throughout most of the Islamic world for years. What was more interesting, however, was the occasional reaction--from the New York Times' Paul Krugman, for example--to the effect that, sure, the guy may be a wild-eyed Jew-hater, but as Muslim leaders go, at least he makes the trains run on time.

Now, I'm normally the last one in the world to trot out such trite analogies to World-War-II fascism. But in this case, I think the chairman of the Anti-Defamation League has it exactly right. The reason the analogy is appropriate is that although few people today are aware of it, those who made excuses for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and the rest--at the beginning at least--were hardly all moral monsters or clueless ignorami. Rather, they looked at the unappetizing smorgasbord of potential leaders available for a collection of seemingly ungovernable countries in the throes of economic collapse and social chaos, and decided that a bit of over-the-top racial rhetoric was a small price to pay. Think of it as a geopolitical version of Moynihan's concept of "defining deviancy down": When an entire region's leadership consists of ruthless, deluded incompetents, then a ruthless, deluded competent seems appealing by comparison.

The problem with this reasoning, of course, is that ruthless, deluded leaders never stay competent for long. Eventually, demagogues who flirt with violent rhetoric reach the point of being compelled to live up to their bombast, with disastrous results. Gamal Abdel Nasser, to choose one famous example, rode his fiery brand of Pan-Arabist militancy to de facto leadership of the entire Arab world in the 1950s. But he found himself trapped by his own ideology in 1967, failed to back down from a recklessly escalating confrontation with Israel, and ended up provoking his own devastating military defeat.

We don't know where the Malaysian Prime Minister's rhetoric will lead him--or perhaps his successors--but chances are that it will not be particularly good for Malaysia. No leader is perfect, of course, and dictators are generally less perfect than most. (Democracy provides a useful quality control mechanism, if nothing else.) But among leadership flaws, the willingness to discount reality entirely, repeatedly, and in public, is a lot more serious than Krugman et al. seem to recognize.

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