The Nation Magazine's Former Gaddafi Romance

Despotism’s cheerleader was for the dictator before it was against him.

The Nation editorialized last week, “As the democratic awakening sweeps across the Arab world, the Obama administration is struggling to find the right balance between short-term crisis management and the longer-term need for a new approach that breaks with Washington’s dark history of military intervention and support for autocratic regimes.”

Pot kettle black?

That “dark history” of “support for autocratic regimes” seems projection on the part of The Nation upon, well, the nation. The editorialists have forgotten, or perhaps hope that their readers have forgotten, the publication’s ignominious past as a booster paper for tyrants.

Take Muammar Gaddafi, dubbed a despot in the aforementioned editorial. He wasn’t always thought so in the magazine’s pages. In the aftermath of his 1969 coup, The Nation played up the twentysomething dictator’s professed socialism. The magazine described him as an almost saintly figure, “a slender, soft-spoken teetotaler who sets an example by not smoking, and eats only those foods prescribed in the Koran.” The flagship publication of the American Left wrote approvingly of Libya’s transformation under Gaddafi. “All privileges have been abolished, all Libyans are now equal under the law,” The Nation gushed, and “no form of racism exists in Libya.”

By Gaddafi’s ascendance, the template had long been set. Any revolution that mouthed anti-American bromides, and that could be viewed as exhibiting some Marxist dimension, would be cast in the most exuberant light.

Though The Nation has existed since 1865, its incarnation as despotism’s cheerleader didn’t occur until the Russian Revolution. Upon Lenin’s bloody coup overthrowing the people who overthrew the czar, The Nation informed its readers that “the franchise is more democratic in Russia than in England or the United States,” “opportunities are greater than have ever been the opportunities of intellectuals anywhere,” and that the revolution produced “so little killing, looting, burning.” An enthusiastic, and pseudonymous, Lincoln Steffens explained: “The revolution in Russia is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, now; in order that Christ may come soon; and, coming, reign forever. Forever and ever, everywhere.”

“The ‘slaughter’ by the Khmer Rouge,” Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in The Nation in 1977, “is a [Robert] Moss-New York Times creation.” The pair mocked the idea, and the reporters advancing it, that Pol Pot was in the midst of conducting genocide. Chomsky and Herman’s book review rejected the fact of a forcible relocation of urbanites to the countryside and quoted a Catholic priest denying state persecution of his coreligionists. They assured readers that “highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available…. concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from American destruction and killing.” There is no genocide and it is America’s fault.

Two years later, when a villainous regime not as sanguinary as the Khmer Rouge but more conspicuous on the world stage arose in Iran, the magazine again acted as public relations flak. The Nation informed readers that “there is every reason to believe that the still unpublished [Iranian] Constitution will include all the elements of a liberal democratic system.” The magazine’s correspondent, future Pulitzer Prize-winner Kai Bird, felt inspired by spotting the works of Marx and Lenin peddled on Tehran’s streets and imagining oil worker komitehs as incipient socialism elbowing out the likes of Exxon. “Whatever the future course of this remarkable revolution,” Bird offered, “the spring of 1979 is budding with hopes of broader freedoms and economic well-being for the Iranian people.”

Lenin didn’t inaugurate a millennial existence. Gaddafi neither established equal justice under law nor abolished racism. Pol Pot’s killing fields were not a hoax devised to discredit Communism. A liberal democracy didn’t emerge as a result of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.

Could The Nation have been more wrong about the Soviet Union, Libya, Cambodia, and Iran? A reader arriving at the opposite conclusion upon every point made on these revolutions would have been far better informed than The Nation’s on-scene (and remote) correspondents. The embarrassing reports speak volumes about the pull of ideology over observation.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, The Nation is forever cursed to repeat yesterday. It doesn’t learn from the past because it doesn’t look to the past. Every revolution appears to it as a vehicle carrying its political aspirations into the future. Why look back to yesterday when there’s a glorious tomorrow up ahead?

And so it goes with Egypt, Libya, and other hotbeds of Middle Eastern revolt. A once-again exhilarated Nation dubs the uprisings “a democratic awakening.” The magazine’s poor track record differentiating despots from democrats suggests that readers should not count on it.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Sky News, PBS, CSPAN, and other networks. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at