An unwritten rule of history is that any non-western leader with whom our governments come into conflict has to be mad and bad with a Hitler complex and appalling personal habits, ranging from kinky sex to cannibalism. So Saddam Hussein is not just a problem, but a psychopath.
But away from the propaganda cartoons, what are they like, these "mad" Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans and eastern Europeans? In Talk of the Devil, the Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio goes in search of seven deposed dictators: Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, General Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Enver Hoxha of Albania, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
The trouble with what should have been a fascinating book is that several of Orizio's "encounters" were evidently not of the close kind at all. Idi Amin, exiled in Saudi Arabia, allowed him one quick phone call and a hello-goodbye audience. As Hoxha is dead and Milosevic on trial at The Hague, Orizio substitutes snatched interviews with their wives, which he defensively claims is better because they were the real rulers anyway. He fills in the gaps with largely familiar stuff culled from old newspaper cuttings, mixing fact with palace gossip to sketch the dictators' often bloody years in power. These dramatic little histories serve only to emphasise how small and irrelevant his subjects seem now.
In his preface, Orizio cites his chosen dictators' defence that they only did what anybody would have had to do in their position. "I do not know whether or not this is true," he concludes. "I do not even know whether we can forgive them. We can only study them. And perhaps the exercise will help us to reach a greater understanding of ourselves." Speak for yourself, dottore.
By removing its subjects from any wider historical/international context, Talk of the Devil leaves the impression that the personalities and foibles of these tinpot tyrants can explain events. But it is impossible to understand anything much about such figures by "studying them", as if they were subjects for a confessional therapist.
Whatever one thinks of George W Bush, western politicians are rarely accused of eating their opponents' livers. Modern dictatorships like these emerged only in non-western societies. Why? Might it, as some claim, have something to do with racial (or as we say these days, "cultural") differences? Or is it more to do with the unequal power relationship between the developed and developing worlds? Don't ask Orizio. His idea of broad analysis is to quote at length from the dreadful lyrics of two old songs about Amin and Duvalier, sung by those famous philosophers Manhattan Transfer and Kris Kristofferson.
It should not be hard to see how the rise and fall of these dictators reflected the shifting tides of international power. They were all creatures of the cold war. Some, like Duvalier and Bokassa, were tolerated or supported by the west as defenders of anti-communist outposts. Others, like Mengistu and even Amin, rode the wave of anti-western unrest that swept the third world after America's defeat in Vietnam. Orizio reprints Amin's letter to the Queen, in 1975, in which the self-styled Conqueror of the British Empire asked Her Majesty to prepare for his visit. He told her that he was "particularly concerned about food, because I know that you are in the middle of a fearsome economic crisis", and requested to visit Scotland, Ireland and Wales, "to meet the heads of revolutionary movements fighting against your imperialist oppression".
As the cold war drew to a close and the Soviet bloc crumbled, the dictators' careers took another turn. Jaruzelski imposed martial law in Poland, Milosevic fought to hold the fragmenting Yugoslav federation together, Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned Mengistu, and the Americans called time on Duvalier. All of these apparently powerful figures turned out to be puppets in somebody else's great game.
Orizio finally touches on the wider context in his chapter on Mengistu - presumably because, thanks to the Italian connection, he knows something about Ethiopia. Mengistu, architect of the Red Terror, explains how he turned to the Soviets and modelled his regime on the goose-stepping East German army only once he had been turned down by the Americans. Now, a guest of Robert Mugabe, he sits in his house in a suburb of Harare, railing against his betrayal by Comrade Gorbachev. As they say in Zimbabwe, it's just not cricket.
When the other little monsters choose to speak to Orizio, most point the finger at the double standards of the western powers. Admitting that he killed people (but denying that he ate them), Bokassa demands: "What about Ariel Sharon? Why has he been forgiven for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, while I have been forgiven for nothing? Just because I am African."
Mira Markovic, wife of Milosevic, says that America, now fighting a war against Islamic terrorism, bombed the Serbs for trying to do the same in Kosovo. "Leaders cannot be treated at one point as heroes and at another as war criminals," she argues. But the lesson of these seven lives is that they can. Saddam Hussein, the threat to world peace formerly known as the CIA's man in Iraq, is the latest dictator to ride that roller-coaster career path.
Perhaps Orizio is already working on new chapters on Saddam and Mugabe for the paperback edition. The cold war is long gone, along with most regimes to which it played midwife, but it seems that leaders like Bush and Blair are driven by a need to set up little Hitlers.
Mick Hume is the editor of spiked-online.com