What is a dictator?

Amid this political and moral complexity that spans disparate regions of the Earth, some patterns do emerge. On the whole, Asian dictators have performed better than Middle Eastern ones. Deng of China, Lee of Singapore, Park of South Korea, Mahathir bin Mohammad of Malaysia, Chiang Kai-Shek of Taiwan were all authoritarians to one degree or another. But their autocracies led to economic and technological development, to better governance, and to an improved quality of life. Most important, their rules, however imperfect, have overall better positioned their societies for democratic reforms later on. All of these men, including the Muslim Mahathir, were influenced, however indirectly and vaguely, by a body of values known as Confucianism: respect for hierarchy, elders, and, in general, ethical living in the here-and-now of this world.

Contrast that with Arab dictators such as Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Saddam of Iraq, and the al Assads of Syria. Ben Ali and Mubarak, it is true, were far less repressive than Saddam and the elder Assad. Moreover, Ben Ali and Mubarak did encourage some development of a middle class in their countries. But they were not ethical reformers by any means. Of course, Saddam and al Assad were altogether brutal. They ran states so suffocating in their levels of repression that they replicated prison yards. Rather than Confucianism, Saddam and al Assad were motivated by Baathism, a half-baked Arab socialism so viciously opposed to Western colonialism that it created a far worse tyranny of its own.

Beyond the Middle East and Asia there is the case of Russia.