The Dictator’s Handbook I: Gaddafi’s Failing? Too Kind

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith are professors of politics at New York University. They write about the choices facing leaders in “The Dictator’s Handbook” (Public Affairs Press, 2011). The book provides an intuitive, example-driven introduction to politics that covers aspects of political economy, comparative politics and international relations and is based on over 18 years of academic development of selectorate theory. The following is a guest post by Bueno de Mesquita and Smith:

Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi knew the essentials of coming to power and keeping power. At the end of the day this is what politicians of all stripes crave and so it is the metric by which they should be measured. He seized power when King Idris was away, seeking medical treatment in Turkey in 1969—Richard Nixon had just become President.

He then proceeded to follow the five essential rules of retaining office.

Rule 1: Rely on as few supporters as possible.
Gaddafi suppressed all political opposition, criminalized dissent and ensured that only close family and friends had any power.

Rule 2: Make sure essential supporters know there are plenty of replacements for their them.
By disbanding the Monarchy and making Libya an Arab Republic, Gaddafi ensured that virtually anyone could be brought into the coalition. This put his supporters on notice that they could easily be replaced.

Rule 3: Control the revenue.
It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves. Gaddafi forced oil companies to increase royalties from 50% to 79%. He and his family took over virtually every economic enterprise in Libya. This did not help the economy but it did ensure no one could succeed economically except through Gaddafi’s benevolence.

Rule 4: Reward your supporters so they don’t go looking for your replacement.
Flush with oil revenues Gaddafi bought loyalty.

Rule 5: Never be nice to the people at the expense of your coalition.
It is hard for the people to rise up if they are kept hungry, isolated and ignorant.

Gaddafi was a successful leader. He outlasted seven U.S. presidents and survived for nearly 42 years. But complacency cost him more time in office—he did not pay enough attention to Rule 5. He was too nice.

Conditions in Libya were certainly brutal under Gaddafi, but they could have been much worse. According to the index of press restrictions produced by Reporters Without Borders, Libya shifted from being more repressive than its neighbors in 2005 to being freer than Syria, Yemen, and Tunisia and on a comparable level with Saudi Arabia in 2010.

Only Egypt was substantially freer, but then its former – with “former” being the key word – President Mubarak needed a relatively educated and connected workforce since much of the Egyptian economy relied on commerce and tourism. Gaddafi had oil wealth. He did not need an educated population to engage in commerce, and yet according to UNDP’s development indicators he provided substantially more years of education than his neighbors. And it cost him dearly.

The National Transitional Council is set to inherit vast wealth in unfrozen assets with which to buy loyalty and form as small a coalition as possible. Anyone who believes the NTC will empower the people is deluding herself.

5 Responses to The Dictator’s Handbook I: Gaddafi’s Failing? Too Kind

  1. Brian Schmidt September 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Pleased to see someone make a testable prediction about empowering the people. Let’s revisit in a year.

    Regarding press freedom, I think you can argue it’s already increased in NTC-ruled Libya, so that argues somewhat against the prediction. But let’s wait a bit.

  2. absurdbeats September 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    So, “The Prince”, v. 21st c?

  3. Geoffro September 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    First-time commenter… I’m not typically a person to take issue with artistic choices, but does it strike anyone as a bit strange that BDM and Smith are writing this stuff in a second-person imperative voice, i.e. a how-to, best practices guide for dictators? I mean, normatively speaking, it’s a rather sinister approach. Sure they could say they are just doing this tongue-in-cheek. But even if they are kidding, the content is plausible, and it means that part of our discipline might be providing empirically driven rules of thumb for future dictators. It’s like advising people on how to torture smarter, how to keep politicides secret, or how to better control information. Am I the person at they comedy hall not laughing at the funny genocide joke–or is the joke not really that funny?

    • idiot September 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

      The joke’s funny because dictators don’t NEED the playbook; they either learn on the job or they don’t and get overthrown. And future dictators will learn on the job: why would they rely on a bunch of political scientists that never was a dictator in the first place and likely don’t know all the secrets that the dictator himself knows about the State.

      My understanding is that the book is supposed to show is how dictators survive, so that non-dictators can understand more about dictatorships rather than make assumptions.

  4. John Jay September 26, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Bruce Bueno de Mesquita stated that “[a]ccording to a declassified C.I.A. assessment, the predictions for which [he’s] been responsible have a 90 percent accuracy rate.”

    Does he object that his claim “refers to a small sample of analyses done long ago on limited problems and with not overwhelming success,” as stated in the NYT’s review of his book?