An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Dictator’s Handbook for the President

To win in 2012, Obama's going to have to act a bit more like the tyrants he's so proud of toppling.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama can't get away from talking about dictators. Four years ago, candidate Obama controversially asserted that his administration would be open to negotiations with autocratic governments like Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Today, responding to Republican criticisms that he has been weak or hesitant on foreign policy, the U.S. president's supporters are more likely to trot out the fact that three longtime dictatorships have fallen under his watch.

Barack Obama can’t get away from talking about dictators. Four years ago, candidate Obama controversially asserted that his administration would be open to negotiations with autocratic governments like Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Today, responding to Republican criticisms that he has been weak or hesitant on foreign policy, the U.S. president’s supporters are more likely to trot out the fact that three longtime dictatorships have fallen under his watch.

How much credit the president deserves for this is certainly open to debate. And in any case, the 2012 election is more likely to hinge on the high U.S. unemployment rate and the United States’ sluggish economic growth than the state of Arab democracy or whether such democracy is advantageous for Americans. But it might still benefit the president to take a closer look at the factors that brought down Middle Eastern autocrats this year. And because "leading from behind" is no way to win an election, Obama might want to learn from their mistakes to help him in his own bid to retain power.

The logic of politics — in both democracies and dictatorships — is not nearly as complex as many think. Forget the intricacies of individual states, grand strategy, and the national interest. And for now, let’s forget about right and wrong. Indeed, the real, universal lessons of political life can be gleaned from how leaders survive and thrive when in power.

At this point, you may be saying, "Hold on! If the U.S. president tried to act like a dictator he’d be out of a job in no time flat." You’re right — almost. Democratic leaders are constrained by the laws of the land, which also determine, through election procedures, the size of the coalition that they need in order to come to and hold power. Nearly everything leaders — of all kinds — do while in power comes down to knowing how many backers they absolutely need and how big a pool these supporters are drawn from. An American president, for example, doesn’t need a majority of voters to choose him even in a two-party race. As Al Gore learned the hard way in 2000, the Electoral College is the determinant of how large a coalition is needed to be president. Placed just right, it is possible to win the presidency with just 25 percent or even less of the popular vote. While no candidate has yet achieved that minimum, a few have managed to win with just 30-something percent, and several have won even though another candidate got more votes.

Those voters who are truly essential get rewarded for their support; but how big their rewards are depends on how many substitutes there are for them. Think about it: Is your vote really worth the same as a Wall Street hedge fund manager or someone in a key swing state? The more substitutes — we call them the selectorate — the more cheaply comes the loyalty of essential supporters. The combination of coalition and selectorate size shapes a surprisingly large number of domestic and foreign-policy choices, choices that often can be said to deviate from what the majority of Americans want.

Coalition and selectorate size shape taxing and spending decisions; they determine the extent to which leaders follow corrupt policies or those aimed at enhancing the welfare of the general populace; and they explain variations in the limits on freedom and prosperity. Don’t be fooled: Democrats and dictators alike do what best secures their hold on power. Although their methods may differ, just five rules shape how they govern. These rules identify the incentives driving survival-oriented leaders, whether of the Qaddafi or Obama variety.

Rule 1: Keep the winning coalition as small as possible.

Leaders should rely on as few people as possible to stay in power. Fewer "essentials" mean more control and greater discretion over how money is spent.

Take North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, a contemporary master at ensuring dependence on a small coalition. He doesn’t lose sleep over his starving population, and he doesn’t hesitate to take provocative foreign-policy actions, like sinking the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, or attacking South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, both in 2010. These acts weren’t merely to unsettle his rivals down south; they helped him discover fissures in his own coalition, sorting out who was truly loyal to him. Indeed, Kim, preparing for a transition of power to his son, purged senior members of his government right after the Cheonan incident and just before attacking Yeonpyeong. His policies are certainly bad for North Korea’s neighbors and North Korea’s starving people, but they work great for him and for his small cadre of crony loyalists.

In the U.S. context, the president needs a vast coalition (though well short of a majority) to hold office. That is presumably why Obama, who ran with great appeal to the Democratic Party’s liberal base, has continually shifted toward the center, trying to capture and hold independent voters. Of course, he would love to need a smaller coalition, but that’s hard to control given the electoral rules in the United States.

Still, members of Congress, with the help of their fellow party members in state legislatures, are pretty good at manipulating the rules to keep their respective coalitions small and loyal. Congressional leaders love gerrymandered electoral districts — which ensure that they pick their voters instead of the voters picking them. Gerrymandering is so effective that incumbents have a 95 percent chance of reelection. It’s all about keeping the pool of essentials small and loyal.

Rule 2: Keep the selectorate as large as possible.

Maintain a large selectorate — the pool of potential supporters from which your winning coalition is drawn — to make it easy to replace any troublemakers in the coalition. A large selectorate pool permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well-behaved or else face replacement.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has mastered this rigged coterie system. Khamenei depends on a small coalition of Revolutionary Guard leaders (especially Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari), the Bonyads (who were originally created by the Shah, manage the coalition’s money equal to approximately 20-25 percent of Iran’s GDP, and are exempt from taxation or prosecution for corruption), the Basij (the thugs, led by Khamenei’s son, who violently quell any hint of unrest), ayatollahs from outside the holy city of Qom, and some key business leaders. They are drawn from a large pool of prospective backers, including many aspiring junior clerics and a massive electorate of would-be supporters if the price is right. When he doesn’t like the policies pursued by one of his erstwhile supporters, like former President Mohammad Khatami, he can simply get rid of him and find someone else — like current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance — to take his place. Luckily for Khamenei, many people are willing to do his bidding in exchange for power and the riches that come with it. That is a critical reminder to Ahmadinejad that he should not wander too far from the policies Khamenei (and Jafari) favor.

Of course, U.S. Democrats would also like to enlarge the selectorate and hold the coalition’s size constant, but they can’t as long as checks and balances are in place. When elections are meaningful, electoral rules make enlarging the selectorate difficult without violating Rule 1. Still, the Democratic Party works hard to register new voters who happen to be in income brackets, age groups, and locales likely to vote in their favor. Republicans work equally hard to try to impede those newly registered voters from actually voting, even as they do everything they can to mobilize their own electoral base. Competition is all about shrinking the winning coalition relative to the actual selectorate.

Who, after all, can forget that in 1970, President Richard Nixon expanded the selectorate by lowering the voting age from 21 to 18? The impact of this expansion was, over the long term, to give Republican presidential candidates far more votes than the pundits expected from among young, newly enfranchised voters.

Rule 3: Control the flow of 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. The most effective cash flow for the self-interested leader is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people wealthy.

Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and his family ran Libya like their personal fiefdom. They took over most of Libya’s business enterprises, running them for their personal gain. Of course, there is no reason to suppose that Qaddafi or his family had any particular business acumen, so their control was bad news for the economy. But politically it ensured for decades that no one could succeed in Libya except by the graces of Qaddafi. And until this winter, it worked: Billions of dollars bought a lot of arms and loyalty.

The United States’ Tea Party movement is right when it complains that politicians, especially Democrats, want the money to flow through their hands when they are at the head of government. But this, of course, is what all successful, long-term political leaders want. President George W. Bush spent prodigiously; so does Obama. Ronald Reagan, allegedly the ultimate fiscal conservative, did too. And they especially spend on programs that tend to benefit their constituents. (Seen one way, Obama’s health-care legislation was all about empowering his selectorate.) Indeed, continued access to the favors or targeted programs that supporters receive then depends on keeping their preferred incumbent leader in power. For Republicans, that means potentially expiring tax breaks that only remain law if enough Republicans are elected and reelected. For Democrats, entitlements aimed especially at the relatively poor — Democratic voters — are just what the reelection doctor called for.

Rule 4: Pay key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.        

Remember, a leader’s backers would rather be the leader themselves. An incumbent’s big advantage is having control of the revenue stream. Any leader must give the coalition just enough so that it doesn’t shop around for someone to replace him or her, and not a penny more.

Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are critical to maintaining Saudi security — not only against external invasion but against the risk of internal uprising. King Abdullah certainly could not afford to have the military sit on its hands if the people rose up, as the Egyptian military did this year. That’s probably why Saudi Arabia spends 11 percent of its GDP on the military. By way of contrast, the United States — which doesn’t need to worry about a coup — spends less than 5 percent of its GDP on its much larger armed forces. Egypt spent only about 2 percent of its GDP on the military in 2009. Hosni Mubarak probably regrets that today!

Although Obama has continued to spend significantly on defense, we must remember that he inherited the costs of two wars. Still, he has clearly worked to shift spending more toward social programs, like health care, that appeal to his base of voters. And when it came to trying to stimulate the economy, he aimed expenditures toward his voters rather than general welfare. Thus he spent billions of dollars on the Cash for Clunkers car-exchange program that pleased United Auto Workers union members in the pivotal state of Michigan, but didn’t do much to stimulate the economy in down-and-out Republican enclaves. Even his recent jobs speech to a joint session of Congress, which emphasized the bipartisan nature of his proposals, called for hefty increased spending on teachers who, it just so happens, disproportionately vote Democrat. He could just as easily have proposed an across-the-board income tax cut to put more money into the economy but income tax is disproportionately paid by wealthier, Republican, voters.  

Although Obama’s hands — like those of any democratic leader — are tied more firmly than are a dictator’s, he too tries to redirect spending to his coalition over whatever might constitute the broader, general welfare.

Rule 5: Never take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better.

The flip side of Rule 4 is not to be too cheap toward your coalition of supporters. If a leader is good to the people at the expense of his coalition, it won’t be long until his former friends will be gunning for him — or lining up with the opposition. Effective policy for the masses doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among coalition members, and it’s darn expensive to boot. Hungry people are not likely to have the energy to overthrow a regime. Disappointed coalition members, in contrast, can defect, leaving the incumbent in deep trouble.

Burma’s Senior Gen. Than Shwe is an expert at the implementation of this rule. He made sure following 2008’s Cyclone Nargis that food relief was controlled and sold on the black market by his military supporters rather than letting aid go directly to the people — at least 138,000 and maybe as many as 500,000 of whom died in the disaster. The military, not the people, are the essential backers of the ruling elite in Burma.

Although all politicians are pretty good at Rule 5, the U.S. Republican Party has grasped this tenet of politics better than the Democrats. They have stymied the Obama administration’s stimulus plans at every turn. For each inch they have given up in negotiation they have extracted a mile in terms of rewards for their supporters. During the debt-ceiling debate, the Republicans, much to the pleasure of their key supporters, pushed Obama to endorse massive spending cuts. When Obama offered huge cuts but required that they be accompanied by some tax increases, the Republicans, protecting their base (not U.S. welfare) balked. Their reticence has slowed economic growth. Yet, while this has inflicted pain generally, their supporters have benefited. And almost to a person, the GOP presidential candidates now want to dramatically cut taxes on corporations and business. Care to guess for whom the upper echelons of these firms generally vote?

All politicians are alike; how they are constrained differs.

Just like autocrats and tyrants, leaders of democratic countries follow the Five Rules of politics as best as they can — they, too, want to get power and keep it. The conventional impression that democrats and autocrats are worlds apart stems only from the different constraints they face. Those who rely on a large coalition — democrats — have to be more creative than their autocratic counterparts and thus they succeed less often. The proof? Even though they generally provide a much higher standard of living for their citizens than do tyrants, democratic leaders generally have much shorter terms in office, even apart from term limits.

As we have noted, Obama has internalized these rules and carries them out as best as the electoral and legal structures of the United States allow him to. Consider his policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the president is to be reelected, he must do what his core voters want or risk them staying home on Election Day 2012 or perhaps voting for a yet-to-emerge, third-party candidate more to their liking. The president likely remembers what happened to Al Gore back in 2000 when Ralph Nader mounted a devastating campaign that sucked up votes from the Democratic base. Obama’s core constituents want the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is why, out of self-preservation if not necessarily good strategy, he must pull at least a significant number of U.S. forces out of Afghanistan before that country is actually ready to defend itself against Taliban insurgents. He is similarly likely to withdraw almost all U.S. forces from Iraq — as he has pledged — before that country’s government is well positioned to take care of itself. Protecting the Afghan and Iraq governments instead might win some independent voters for Obama, but probably not enough to replace lost core constituents.

And what about the domestic front? The central issues in the United States today are jobs and economic growth. Democrats like to spend on entitlements that help their voters. Republicans like to cut taxes to help their voters. Democrats want to raise taxes — mostly on Republicans — to pay the cost of their social programs. And Republicans want to cut those very programs to "pay" for tax breaks for wealthy — read Republican — voters.

Does the national interest or the people’s well-being enter the equation? Not really. The well-being of key voters (those essential for victory) drives the choice. Obama may boast of the dictators taken down under his first term, but to get elected to a second term he may need to think like one.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith are professors in the department of politics at New York University. Their most recent book, The Dictator's Handbook, just came out in paperback.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.