It's the middle of February again, which can only mean one thing. It's time for Parade magazine's annual survey of the world's worst dictators. I've come to accept the sheer absurdity of a magazine that only tangentially covers anything that could be considered world news the other 51 weeks of the year publishing an annual ranking of the world's worst dictators, so I don't have any additional criticism to offer about the concept. As for the results, let's take a look at the top 10.
1. Kim Jong-Il, North Korea: Kim finally grabbed the number one spot after finishing second the past two years. I can't really argue with this choice. In addition to his pure dictatorial bona fides, he's the only dictator who has a control group against which to compare his misrule. It's hard to say how much better (or worse) most countries would be without their current dictator, but it's pretty safe to say that had the Korean peninsula not been cleaved in two following World War II, the northern section of it would look a lot more like today's South Korea than today's North Korea.
2. Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan: No surprises here as well. I find it strange that Parade decided to mention that the Clinton administration imposed trade sanctions on Sudan in 1997 but exempted gum arabic (of which the US imports 4000 tons annually from Sudan). Are they trying to pin the blame for the Darfur genocide on the Clinton administration? Will leading right-wing websites pick up on this and start selling "No Blood for Gum Arabic" bumper stickers?
3. Than Shwe, Myanmar: He was the biggest mover in the top 5 (up 3 spots from last year's 6th place finish). I was kind of surprised, I figured he would have moved up even higher after last year's violent crushing of the saffron revolution.
4. King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia and 5. Hu Jintao, China: Abdullah and Hu swapped places in this year's poll. I still think Hu is somewhat out of place on this list. He's more of a caretaker than a dictator. Of course, he's the caretaker of a government that brutalizes its own people so he obviously is not without fault, but he will step down when his time comes and be replaced by someone else who will probably maintain the status quo, but it at least gives China a mechanism to gradually ease its way into becoming a freer society, which is more than most of the other people on this list can say.
6. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe: Mugabe moved up from 7th place last year. In terms of sheer venality, Mugabe should probably be in first place.
7. Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Iran: Khamenei wins the most improved dictator award, falling from third place last year all the way to seventh. This is obviously a result of the minor cooling off in the US versus Iran brinksmanship, but I'm still surprised to see Iran fall this far on the list.
8. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan: Musharraf cracked the top 10 once again after finishing a distant 15th last year. Musharraf is another strange selection. Though he did gain power through a bloodless coup, his regime has gained a modicum of electoral legitimacy and he did resign his military post at the end of last year. Musharraf is very middle-of-the-road as a dictator; Pakistan's instability and geostrategic importance are the reasons for his inclusion on this list.
9. Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan: Karimov moved down one spot from last year's poll, presumably because nothing good enough or bad enough to report happened in Uzbekistan last year.
10. Isayas Afewerki, Eritrea: Afekerki is the biggest surprise of this year's top 10, moving up from 13th last year. His ascension is probably due to Ethiopia's incursion into Somalia last year, which led to accusations of Eritrean support for the vanquished Islamist regime in Mogadishu (under the enemy of my enemy is my friend doctrine) and the resulting flare up in tensions along the volatile Ethiopia-Eritrea border.
The Rookie of the year was Cuba's Raul Castro, who finished 18th in his first full year behind the helm in Cuba. This highlights the key failing of this survey. The Castro regime is every bit as repressive as China, yet China finished 13 places ahead of Cuba. The difference, of course, is that China has the potential to harm the US economically and/or militarily, while Cuba does not. As I've said before, this list needs to decide what it wants to be, a ranking of the worst dictators in the world or a ranking of the worst dictators whose misrule could potentially impact the US.
Some other notable mentions include Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashenka, who at 16th place is Europe's only top 20 finisher, and the world's last reigning absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland. As if finishing 14th wasn't already bad enough, Parade incorrectly named Mswati the ruler of the nonexistent country of Equatorial Swaziland.