The breakdown of democracy in Pakistan has led most normal people to question Western support for General Musharraf. The Australian’s Greg Sheridan is worried, too, but for quite different reasons. He thinks that Musharraf might be insufficiently dictatorial.

“Sometimes,” Sheridan writes, “the word dictator can prevent clear thinking in the Western liberal mind, as often does the word war. But, as George Orwell observed, wars have results, and different wars have different results, depending who wins.”

“So it is with dictators. There are more and less ruthless, bloodthirsty, legitimate and effective dictators. The quality of the dictator influences profoundly the quality of the nation.”

If most Australians remain shamefully ignorant of the finer gradations of tyranny, Sheridan is a lip-smacking connoisseur, who explains that, when it comes to dictators, what you really want is efficiency.

“Musharraf’s trajectory of incompetence and destruction contrasts starkly with the performance of another dictator routinely reviled in the Australian liberal mind: Indonesia’s Suharto.”

That would be the same Suharto who seized power in 1965 through the massacre of perhaps 500,000 people. As Time magazine reported, Suharto’s killings took place “on such a scale that the disposal of corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in northern Sumatra where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travellers from these areas tell us small rivers and streams have been literally clogged with bodies. River transportation has become seriously impeded.”

So, when Sheridan enthuses about how, when “Suharto took over in the mid-1960s [… he] genuinely restored order”, he’s talking about thousands upon thousands of corpses, floating down the river. Bear that in mind, as you read the next paragraph.

“Suharto was a dictator and there were many bad things about his rule, especially his human rights record. But here’s the complex bit: he built a modern Indonesia that was capable of sustaining democracy.”

This particular argument possesses inestimable advantages, not least of which is its wide applicability. Try, for instance, a simple substitution.

“Mussolini was a dictator and there were many bad things about his rule, especially his human rights record. But here’s the complex bit: he built a modern Italy that was capable of sustaining democracy.”

From Franco to Pinochet, it works equally well. Say what you want about that Mr Hitler, he did construct those modern autobahns.

Readers who followed Sheridan on Iraq would know him as a prolific and consistent contributor to the Encyclopaedia Wrongtancia. But muddleheadness alone doesn’t explain this obscene enthusiasm for Suharto-style massacres in Pakistan.

Back when the neocons thought invasions of more-or-less the entirety of the Middle-East were in the offing, loyal mouthpieces like Sheridan banged on regularly about the universality of freedom. Today, however, they recognise the instability that Iraq has unleashed upon the world, and they’d dearly love to see a Man on Horseback gallop onto the scene, to do for the Islamists what Suharto did for the communists.

That’s why the much vaunted opposition to “moral relativism” has suddenly become so… relative. For we’re back to the passage Sheridan quotes from poor old George Orwell. Different dictators produce different results, you see – it all depends on who wins.

One suspects it won’t be the people of Pakistan.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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