What is it about those handsome dictators and their photogenic families?

Okay, Hugo Chavez isn’t really handsome. But Sean Penn is still swooning.

We’ve had some fun at the expense of Vogue’s Onionesque spread on stylish Asma al-Assad, “a rose in the desert” and, not so incidentally, the wife of ruthless tyrant Bashar Al-Assad. Now author and Hillsdale history professor Paul A. Rahe calls our attention to flattery doled out to those delightful Gaddafis.

While perhaps not exactly a desert rose, the dictator’s son Saif has also charmed his share of well-placed westerners (including a London School of Economics director who recently stepped down after controversy over his having accepted sizeable donations from Saif on behalf of the school). Rahe links to embarrassing articles on Saif by Benjamin R. Barber, political scientist and Distinguished Fellow at a policy center called Demo. (Fearing Barber’s pieces were spoofs, I Googled Demos to be sure it was legit. Its roster of experts includes Robert Kuttner, the lefty journo, and James “Son of Ring” Lardner, a former Washington Post reporter.)

Anyway,  Barber’s Feb. 1, 2011 Huff Post entry on Saif and the Middle East is a hoot:   

Ordinary Americans, like their counterparts in the media and Washington, are imprisoned in the same shallow generalizations that have captured US foreign policy, and proceed from such foolish assumptions as “Arabs” or “Muslims” or “Middle Eastern countries” are all the same, all of a piece, all likely to follow a singular path into chaos, revolution and who-knows-what?…

But never fear, Ordinary American. Mr. Barber is available to enlighten us:   

I am not so foolish as to predict anything, even for the countries I know well, but let me say a few things about why neither Libya nor Syria are likely to follow Egypt into a chaotic uprising, and neither Qadaffi nor Bashar Assad are likely to be forced into exile any time soon. The only generalization that can be drawn from these examples is don’t generalize! Especially if you are President Obama or Secretary Clinton.

Take Libya: Libya has a small population of around five million, ample supplies of natural gas and oil, a history of being anything but a proxy of the West; it also has a tradition of participatory local governance (if in non-essential matters) because of Muammar Qadaffi’s long interest in participatory democracy and peoples’ committees (see his Green Book from the 1970s!). Moreover, Qadaffi himself is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear. His son Saif, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world , has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that he would accept no office that wasn’t subject to popular elections. No dynasty likely there.

Well, there probably won’t be a dynasty there now, at least not a Gaddafi dynasty, though not exactly for the reasons Barber gave. And what’s a bouquet for dictators without few kind words for Bashar of Syria:

Syria is governed by old Baathists as Iraq formerly was, but its ruling family has now passed into the hands of the former ophthalmologist Bashar Assad and his British-educated, banking career wife Asma, both of whom are relatively popular among Syrians with whom they mix regularly at restaurants and in the Sukh, where they wear blue jeans (not exactly Mubarak!). They are not passionate Baathists, but members of the Alawite minority and Syrian patriots who have experimented (ever so cautiously) with opening society, engaging young people, developing a pluralistic cultural legacy (through a new program with the Louvre).

Why do people fall for these odious regimes and their leaders? Well, says Rahe, money helps. Dictators can do really nice things for you (Vogue’s Joan Juliet Buck particular enjoyed being whisked about Syria in chauffeur-driver cars). Rahe adds:

But money is certainly not the only coin in which the modern intellectual likes to be paid. There is, after all, nothing quite like celebrity, and proximity to power can easily become for an intellectual in search of renown what a candle is for a moth. If, as they say, power corrupts, then lack of power corrupts absolutely. …

When celebrity is the aim, a scholar who is ambitious is almost certain to become a sycophant-chained to the tastes adopted and the ideas embraced by the audience whose acclaim he seeks. In our time, the scholar, the writer, and the artist may not be parasites dependent on aristocratic patrons, but that does not mean they are truly free. The desire for applause tends to inspire servility in anyone subject to it-and it is a short step from flattering one’s public to flattering monsters who wield influence and power.

The Middle Eastern dictators, Rahe says, have done a good job in finding and rewarding their useful idiots. Of course, now they just look like idiots.