Tough year for tyrants

As Josh Penry’s column today makes clear, the year now drawing to a close was mostly a humdrum year.

Except in one respect: 2011 was a terrible year for tyrants. It has provided reasons to celebrate around the globe.

Start with three who departed this Earth in 2011, two of whom did so with a big boost from others.

✔ Osama bin Laden’s death in May, at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALS, was certainly a momentous event. It culminated a decade-long search for the man behind the 9/11 attacks on this country and many more terrorist attacks worldwide.

Bin Laden’s death didn’t put an end to his Islamist terrorist network, al-Qaida. But his death and those of several of his top lieutenants put a severe crimp in the organization’s activities.

✔ Moammar Gadhafi met his end in October at the hands of his own people, whom he had oppressed for more than 40 years, while sponsoring terrorism abroad. Libyan rebels defeated Gadhafi’s forces after months of battle, thanks to air support and military assistance from NATO and the United States.

Although Libya’s future as a democratic nation remains uncertain, ridding that country of Gadhafi makes that possibility far more likely.

✔ Kim Jong-il’s death earlier this month in North Korea didn’t signal a move toward democracy for that long-suffering nation, since he was quickly replaced as “supreme leader” by his son, Kim Jong-un. But the elder Kim was a despot who ruthlessly starved his own people as he sought to turn North Korea into a nuclear power. There have been few poltical signals yet from his son, but there are many in the international community who hope the change presents an opportunity for better relations between North Korea and the rest of the world.

Death didn’t remove all tyrants from power this year. In several instances, popular uprisings accomplished that feat without killing the erstwhile dictators.

In Tunisia, Yemen and, most dramatically in Egypt, grassroots movements of citizens ousted iron-fisted rulers who once seemed invincible.

Whether the Arab Spring, as it came to be known,will ultimately lead to real freedom and democracy in these countries is unclear. But continued protests and an eagerness to vote signal that most of the residents of these countries aren’t willing to simply trade one form of despotism for another.

Then there are the tyrants who cling precariously to power, but didn’t fare well in 2011. One is Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who continues to have his army gun down protesters even as he denies it is occurring. Now, even his one-time allies in the Arab world are questioning his actions. And courageous citizens of Syria seem determined to maintain their opposition to his rule, despite the threat of death.

Even Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader who had been working to assume dictatoratorial control of his country, is now facing public protests. Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets this month to challenge fraudulent elections. Putin’s once throttle-hold on the Russian media appears to be loosening, as more Rusian news outlets question his leadership.

There are still plenty of despots around the world whose grip on power doesn’t seem to be slipping. But 2011 was a bad year for many tyrants. We sincerely hope that trend continues in 2012 and beyond.


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