Play #6 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Blame the Foreign Bogeyman

Any leader has to find a way to unite his people. Some politicians use hope and some use fear. Unsurprisingly, would-be Dictators tend to go the fear route, and they use a couple of specific fearmongering tactics to unite the people  while keeping a stranglehold on power. One such tactic is Play #5: Find a Scapegoat. The tactical complement to Play #5 is to create an external Bogeyman victimizing the nation from without. Scapegoating a minority or marginalized community inside the country unites everyone else (ideally, anyway) in opposition to this dire internal threat. Creating a foreign Bogeyman attacking the nation from without forces a Dictator’s people to turn to him for solutions and protection from threats both internal and external. There are many, many examples of Dictators who use this tactic, particularly to explain away economic dysfunction at home. Most current Dictators have one consistent Bogeyman on whom to blame their woes: the United States. Let’s take a look at how two great antagonists, Russia and Iran, have run this play

Poor little Putin

It’s pretty impressive how often the US has allegedly victimized Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, and in how many ways.  In 2014, Putin blamed the US for Russia’s near economic collapse. He gave a speech at his annual press conference in which he told Russians that the rapidly falling rouble was entirely the fault of the US and its allies, which wanted to chain up the Russian bear, declaw and defang it. In that year, Putin revealed that his neo-imperialist war in Ukraine was also due to US victimization of Russia.  Putin claimed that the Western allies were trying to bring Kiev closer, and that he was therefore required to intervene to protect Russian interests (no one apparently thought to consider Ukraine’s). Among other things, Russia’s defense minister claimed the US was ignoring international law and re-making the world to suit its needs. This narrative allowed the government to pursue an ongoing conflict, allegedly to “protect” Russia’s interests from the expansionist West (Putin has also used this rationale to blame the US for the rise of ISIS). Putin’s victimhood narrative allows him to justify his pursuit of an aggressive and imperial foreign policy and explain away his failure to effectively diversify and manage the Russian economy. Using the US as a Bogeyman is a tool that enables Putin to do pretty much whatever he wants while retaining popular support, because the people – any people – tend to come together in the face of external threats.

The Great Satan

Iran has been claiming to be victimized by America for a very long time, and so its story is well developed. The authoritarian rulers of Iran  sell a standard narrative about the evils of the United States: the CIA overthrew a democratically elected government and propped up a corrupt and abusive Shah for 26 years, thereby enabling the  persecution of the Iranian people. This narrative, which is certainly based in truth, has allowed Iranian leaders to call the US the “Great Satan” and blame it for most government failures, and for resistance to the government, since they took power in 1979. They blamed the US for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s terrible mismanagement of the economy in 2012. When the Green Revolution began in 2009, Ayatollah Khameini blamed it on agents of the US inciting protest. Even after the nuclear deal was signed, Iran’s military leadership confirmed that the US remains the Great Satan.  How could it not?  The myth of the Great Satan is the ultimate foreign Bogeyman, and it is too useful a tool for the mullahs to relinquish.

Keep an eye on the blame game

There are definitely non-Dictators who use milder forms of this play. During the Cold War, many American politicians used a little red scaring to keep constituents in line. What makes Play #6 dangerous is when it is used for misdirection.  When a burgeoning autocrat can sell a narrative like the Great Satan, he is no longer accountable to the people – any missteps are concealed by the malign influence of the Bogeyman. So, if you see a suspiciously undemocratic politician blaming external forces for his foibles, he is probably running Play #6, and it will probably not be the last time he borrows tips from the Dictator’s Playbook.