Electoral staff registers voters at a polling station in Tehran on March 2.
AFP/Getty Images
Electoral staff registers voters at a polling station in Tehran on March 2.

Story highlights

Frida Ghitis: Tyrants like to blame someone else for the messes they make

Ghitis: rulers in Russia, Iran, Egypt and Venezuela have pointed fingers at the U.S.

She says this tactic has worked for decades in the Middle East

Ghitis: But the search for distractions is not working as well as it used to

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of “The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.”

CNN —  

The first refuge of tyrants and buffoons is to blame someone else for the messes they make. On the world stage, that usually means blaming America when things do not go their way.

It’s an old trick. It’s easy to spot. But it doesn’t work as well as it used to.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is using it to bolster his standing ahead of Sunday’s presidential election. The Iranian regime just dusted off the old trick in advance of Friday’s election, the first national vote since the disputed, probably stolen, 2009 election. So have Egypt and Syria, blaming “foreign conspirators” for their people’s demands for democratic change. Even Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with elections approaching, has blamed his cancer on the CIA.

Frida Ghitis
Courtesy Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

That is, indeed, a flattering collection of critics.

The blame-America ploy is nothing new. The first chapter of the Dictators’ Handbook instructs practitioners to find an external enemy to help them preserve their rule. OK, there is no such book, but the strategy is as familiar as paying “supporters” to attend a pro-government demonstration, or simply stealing an election.

By blaming mysterious and powerful outsiders, rulers can shift their problems and distract the population from their legitimate grievances. And when it really works, the tactic can rally the people behind the leader as they passionately take up the cause against evil foreigners who would harm their country. What could be better?

The scam worked like a charm for decades in the Middle East, where dictators blamed the U.S. and Israel for their countries’ multiplying ills.

But the search for excuses, like a knife that has been used too many times, is not cutting as sharply as it used to.

In 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets accusing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of stealing the election, the regime blamed “Western powers” for the outcry.

Ahead of Friday’s parliamentary elections in Iran, authorities first decimated the opposition and then accused America of a secret plot. Authorities imprisoned those who dared to speak out, including reporters, and carried out scores of public executions as a way to intimidate dissenters.

The regime still faces profound internal divisions – between hard-liners and harder-liners. But it would still like a strong turnout to make its stifling grip on power look like a warm embrace.

To pre-empt anyone from interpreting low voting numbers as rejection of the regime, the government warned that a malevolent U.S. is afraid of a turnout and is working to keep Iranians from voting. It further claimed that turnout was high when voting was just starting, despite observations to the contrary.

In Egypt, the U.S. and Israel have been blamed for practically everything, from starting uprisings to fomenting sectarian clashes. The ruling military council is resisting pressure for change. When protesters demand democracy, the military council hints it’s America’s doing, suggesting “hidden powers” are creating unrest, and then detaining American democracy workers. Egyptian authorities walk a fine line, seeking to benefit from anti-American sentiment without cutting off Washington’s generous aid.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has blamed a variety of villains for his woes, as he continues to kill regime opponents by the thousands. He even tried to provoke fighting with Israel by rushing people across the border last summer, but the people saw through his scheme. Protesters want Assad out. Still, the president claims, “The external conspiracy is clear to everybody.”

In Russia, no one doubts that Vladimir Putin will win Sunday’s presidential election. He has run Russia for more than a dozen years, including an early stint as prime minister. He won the presidency twice, and when he hit the term-limit block, he anointed a successor as president while he became prime minister yet again. When he announced a few months ago that he would seek the presidency, Russians felt insulted.

Despite the merciless Moscow cold, thousands have protested against Putin, because they believe his actions are an affront to democracy. But in utterly predictable fashion, Putin blames the the U.S. He took a jab at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and dismissed his critics by accusing them of following Clinton’s “signal.” In a rant reminiscent of moldy Cold War politics, he said the United States wanted to weaken Russia, a rival nuclear power.

Putin will win because he still enjoys a great deal of support, and because he has denied Russians a chance to fairly weigh the alternatives by undermining the opposition at every turn and monopolizing media coverage. His charges that the U.S. orchestrated opposition to his rule only serve to show his nervousness and weakness.

In Venezuela, Chavez is facing stronger opposition than at any time in his dozen years in power. He too has made warnings about U.S. misdeeds a hallmark of his rule. When he was diagnosed with cancer, as had been several Latin American presidents, he suggested a mysterious Washington link to the illnesses.

The search for a distraction, for someone to blame for all that ails a president or a country does not mean that outsiders are completely free of blame. But it does point to regimes that want to change the subject, that want the people to think about something else, anything, other than whether or not they should stay in power.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.