Why is it so hard for strongmen to say goodbye?
By any rational standard, it would seem that the fighting and power struggles in the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Yemen should have been over weeks ago. Maybe soon they all will be: One conflict ended April 11 in the Ivory Coast. But the fact that they have already gone on as long as they have is an indication that there is a basic truth that those in the West fail to grasp about the individuals involved. After all, we ask ourselves: Why don't Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh take the offers of comfortable exile apparently extended to them and leave? It would probably be better for their physical safety, and for their bank accounts. Following weeks of fighting and bargaining and demonstrations, what more do they have to prove?
By any rational standard, it would seem that the fighting and power struggles in the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Yemen should have been over weeks ago. Maybe soon they all will be: One conflict ended April 11 in the Ivory Coast. But the fact that they have already gone on as long as they have is an indication that there is a basic truth that those in the West fail to grasp about the individuals involved. After all, we ask ourselves: Why don’t Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh take the offers of comfortable exile apparently extended to them and leave? It would probably be better for their physical safety, and for their bank accounts. Following weeks of fighting and bargaining and demonstrations, what more do they have to prove?
That sort of reasoning assumes that what divides these strongmen from their adversaries are issues as benign and susceptible to compromise as, say, Medicare and tax rates. But these men are not horse-trading politicians as such; they have been fighting for something far more age-old, basic, and less susceptible to compromise: territory and honor, at least as they define it. Their world is not one of institutions and bureaucracies through which they rule; it is a world of dominating scraps of ground through dependence on relatives and tribal and regional alliances.
In such a world, figures like the deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, are without virtue. They ruled in the Western style through institutions and bureaucracies, and when those institutions — the military and the internal security services — refused to shoot people in the streets, those leaders had no choice but to meekly resign and quickly go into internal or external exile, perhaps without having made the deals necessary for their protection afterward.
Of course, in moral terms, a figure like Gbagbo is especially despicable. To satisfy his ego, he has brought the Ivory Coast to the brink of anarchy. I am not excusing him, but merely trying to partly explain him. In his mind, he fought an election and garnered close to half the votes. And those votes were not because of his position on this or that social or economic issue, but because of what he represented tribally and regionally: He is a southerner from the non-Muslim south of the country. To give in too soon would have been to betray his regional and religious solidarity groups. In places without sufficient economic development, like the Ivory Coast, elections often end up reifying differences based on blood and belief. To fight it out until he was cornered in the basement of his palace, and even then, for his opponents to have to call on the French to help dislodge him, is not a sign of moral weakness from his point of view, but of manly virtue. (The same, of course, might be said of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, who were killed in a gunfight with U.S. troops near Mosul in 2003 — except that they, the spoiled-brat, gangsterish sons of the Stalinesque ruler, were by no means self-made men. Thus, they belong in a lower category of specimen than Gbagbo, Saleh, and Qaddafi.)
Remember, we are not talking about politicians so much as about warriors. Take Saleh. The Western media labels the Yemeni president a recalcitrant tyrant whose stubbornness in clinging to power has, like Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast, threatened to unravel his country. This characterization is certainly true, but it reveals little. Saleh has ruled Yemen for a third of a century, whereas his two immediate predecessors were both assassinated after ruling for eight months in one case and for three years in the other. And the Yemeni strongman before them was removed in a military coup. Saleh is clearly a man of steely nerves and subtle skill who, for decades, has dealt with levels of stress that would psychologically immobilize the most hardened Washington politico. The game he is playing now — negotiating the terms of his departure — is not just about him, but about the fate of his near and somewhat-distant relatives. So, in a sense, who can begrudge him if he hangs on still longer, grasping for better and better terms? For Saleh, "the government" is not some impersonal and legalistic object, but the family business. It must be dissolved on the best terms one can manage, and violence is a tool in that struggle. A few years from now, we may even look back on his rule as one of relative stability and cooperation with the West. Just because he deserves our condemnation now does not mean from an analytical perspective that he should be sold short.
Then, of course, there is Qaddafi, who took power in a coup while still in his 20s and has held a country together for 42 years — a country that for most of history was a geographical expression with no state feeling whatsoever. Because he ruled through a combination of tribal politics and the leaden grip of internal security services, Qaddafi built no state ethos and will, therefore, leave an utter void in his wake. The fact that he has not gone quietly is a sign that he, too, is not fighting about any particular issues, per se, but about a vision of honor that strikes us as primitive, connected as it is to region, tribe, and territory.
And while we are on the subject of tribe and territory, it is important to recognize that the particular kind of tribalism that is one background factor in the rules of Qaddafi, Saleh, and Gbagbo is actually not a primitive, before-the-modern-state tribalism at all, but, as the late European anthropologist Ernest Gellner defined it, a tribalism that constitutes a conscious rejection of a particular government in favor of a wider culture and ethic. In other words, the rejection of a strong Yemeni state by certain tribes may be not a desire for anarchy so much as a reaching out to a wider Islamic culture and a non-oppressive state. The same goes for Qaddafi’s calls over the years for Arab political unity and Gbagbo’s attempts at undoing the borders of French colonialism by appealing to only part of the country’s population.
Life under these men was hell, no doubt, but there was an identifiable logic to their madness, however much I have simplified it. Indeed, nobody captures the attraction of life outside the state as brilliantly as Yale University anthropologist James C. Scott in his book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Tribes today, Scott suggests, do not live outside history, but have "as much history as they require" in order to deliberately practice "state avoidance." That is to say, tribes are rich in traditions and consequently do not seek the intrusion of government officialdom.
Qaddafi, Saleh, and Gbagbo have lived within this complex and ambiguous reality their whole lives and have thus not been state builders, yet another reason, in addition to the moral ones, that they have not found sympathy in the West. But that is no argument against trying to understand them.
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of 20 books, most recently Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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