Oh, the Company They Keep

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power" (Basic Books, 2002).

In the early 1930s, while an estimated 6 million Ukrainians were dying in a famine, New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty was depicting Stalin's Five-Year Plan as a resounding success. For this misreporting, he won a Pulitzer Prize. To its belated credit, the Times disowned Duranty's articles more than a decade ago. Though the Pulitzer committee decided last week not to revoke his award, Duranty's reputation has become hopelessly tarnished, his very name a byword for "craven stooge."

You would think there would be a lesson here for the present day, but Durantyism -- "progressive" Westerners' habit of licking the boots of repressive tyrants -- has long outlived Duranty himself.

Fidel Castro is one strongman who has never quite lost his charm for the smart set. In 1957, New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews was assuring his readers that the bearded rebel "has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the constitution, to hold elections." In 1989, anchorman Peter Jennings declared that "for much of the Third World, Cuba is actually a model of development." And just this year, director Oliver Stone was praising Castro for being "a very moral man" and "one of the Earth's wisest people." Unfortunately, in the weeks before Stone's fawning film, "Commandante," was to air on HBO in May, his hero jailed 75 dissidents. The documentary was mercifully shelved.

It's not that the left is indifferent to the sins of all tyrants. Chat up any smoked-salmon socialist and you'll get an earful about the crimes of Chile's Pinochet, Indonesia's Suharto, the shah of Iran and other Cold War allies of the West. One gets the distinct sense that their biggest crime was not oppressing their own people but being in cahoots with the United States. As long as a dictator hates the U.S., all his minor, or not so minor, lapses can easily be overlooked.

That phenomenon was on vivid display in the streets of London last week as protesters toppled a papier-mache statue of George W. Bush, who was branded "the greatest threat to life on this planet" by Mayor Ken Livingstone. The timing of this comment was a bit unfortunate because it came the very week that car bombs were killing more than 50 people in Turkey. But the protesters don't care about the threat posed by Islamist terrorists, even when their victims are fellow Muslims. The only casualties they care about are those inflicted by American or Israeli bombs.

The fact that Saddam Hussein murdered more than 300,000 of his own people is a matter of complete indifference to the "Stop the War" brigade. So is the fact that, if the coalition were to stop the war, murderous thugs would seize power in Baghdad. Iraqi lives are no more important to them than Ukrainian lives were to Walter Duranty; all that matters is advancing their own ideological agenda.

As appalling as the London protesters were, they were outclassed for sheer moral obduracy by an article in the Nov. 22-23 edition of Britain's Financial Times called "Our Friends in the North." Given that the subject is North Korea one might think the headline is sarcastic, but, no, it's an accurate reflection of what follows: a review of "North Korea: The Hermit Kingdom" by University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings. The reviewer, Michael Church, is full of praise for this "riveting book" that sees "the beleaguered North in a sympathetic light."

Your image of North Korea might derive from a recent human rights report that documented how Kim Jong Il keeps hundreds of thousands of prisoners locked up in slave labor camps. Or maybe you've read stories about the Stalin-like famines that have killed millions of people in recent years. Cumings is here to tell you that you're missing the bigger picture. According to Church's summary of his argument, North Korea's "transitions first to communism, then to post-communism have been -- in terms of social organization -- so extraordinarily smooth."

Church does admit that "well-documented aspects of the North Koreans' darker behavior ... find no mention here." But he cheerily concludes, "Never mind: In the battle to open closed Western minds, this tart and witty broadside makes an excellent start."

It's hard to know which is more appalling: that a professor at a reputable university would write an apologia for the worst dictatorship on the planet or that an influential newspaper would praise it. The spirit of Walter Duranty lives.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World