Apologists Like Tom Friedman Are Doing the Dictators' Dirty Work

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute.

Authoritarians and aspiring dictators around the world are increasingly able to make their case to the American people through witting and unwitting agents of influence.

In a matter of days, the scion of dispassionate chin-stroking on the New York Times editorial page (yes, Tom Friedman) has turned from questioning the spending patterns of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian proto-king better known as MBS, to extolling the supposed top-down Arab Spring in the Kingdom.

Never mind the fact that the real Arab Spring was a disaster for all but Tunisia, or the fact that such an idea typically denotes the development of democratic standards.

Just note that earlier in November, Friedman wrote, "Hearing that Saudi princes were arrested for 'corruption' is like reading that Donald Trump fired seven cabinet secretaries 'for lying.'"

Sixteen days later he wrote: "Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive" before delivering MBS's royal pitch for Western investment.

The problem of authoritarian influence is not just Twitter trolls, fake Facebook accounts, propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik, or even quiet donations to universities, think tanks, and political campaigns.

It's more than Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Usher singing for the now dead Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on November 14, 2017, in Riyadh. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty

It's worse than Lionel Messi being paid $4.2 million to merely visit the current dictator of Gabon, Ali Bongo.

It's even worse than the fact our current president, that apotheosis of money worship, Donald Trump, seems to be so easily persuaded into almost anything by Arabian royal extravagances, serenades from self-proclaimed murderers, and compliments on his intelligence from kleptocrats.

The problem is that the opinions of unelected media influencers are apparently up for grabs to high bidders, and they are rarely called on it.

Ditto, financiers seem to be on the market, ready to spill ink in favor of the dictator of the moment in exchange for favors.

And because these characters are so ubiquitous on television and opinion pages, they represent cost-effective targets for authoritarian influence campaigns. Indeed, these campaigns are such a fact of life, they're spoofed on shows like the "China Daily Show."

Opinions are fine, and they change with circumstance. But when they are so, ahem, fluid . . . one can't help but see the example they provide as salutary for other wannabe authoritarians and authoritarian influencers.

Clay R. Fuller is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously, he taught at the University of South Carolina, Western Carolina University, Midlands Technical College, and Texas State University.