Christian Caryl

The Dictators Are Smarter Than You Think

Don't count the tyrants out. They've still got plenty of tricks up their sleeves.


Dictators are supposed to be dumb, or at least crazy. Muammar al-Qaddafi was a ranting lunatic with a goofy fashion sense. Kim Jong Il had a weird hairstyle and a penchant for surreal sloganeering. Those generals in Burma were brutes given to consulting soothsayers on major decisions and shooting people at the drop of a hat.

But these caricatures — for that is what they are — actually tend to obscure some unpleasant facts about modern life. Qaddafi reigned for 41 years in a country where fractiousness and rivalry were the order of the day in the era that preceded him. Kim Jong Il died in his bed after ruling North Korea for 17 years — despite policies that condemned his country to humiliating poverty even while its neighbors rose to new heights of prosperity. And those generals in Burma? They came to power in 1962, and though they’ve started loosening their grip a bit lately, they still clearly call the shots.

All of these dictators managed to cling to power far longer than they or their people had any right to expect. They were evil, all right. But you can’t call them dumb. Measured by their own criteria, they were actually pretty successful.

This is something that we’d be advised to keep in mind if we’re going to help the forces of freedom to prevail in the world. And this, indeed, is one of the lessons of Will Dobson’s fascinating new book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Dobson, a former FP editor who now works for Slate, got the idea a few years back when he was invited to a strategy game with some pro-democracy activists who were trying to undermine an authoritarian regime in their home country. When Dobson asked if he could play the role of the dictator, he was met with blank stares. "We’re not in the business of teaching people to repress other people," he was told.

The problem, of course, is that you probably won’t have much luck beating despots unless you understand what they’re up to. In his book, Dobson sets out to rectify that error by exploring five current authoritarian regimes and their strategies for maintaining control. He interviews Chinese Communist Party members and Russian dissidents. He follows Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim on a frenetic day of campaigning that dramatizes the challenges of organizing a unified opposition in a country riven by ethnic divides. In Venezuela, he records a memorable encounter with a once high-ranking ally of Hugo Chávez now doing time in jail — a striking testimony to the capriciousness (or, perhaps, ruthless flexibility) of the regime. And even though much of his reporting from Egypt predates the fall of the Mubarak regime, his sharp analysis of the disposition of forces there is as illuminating as many of the accounts that have come out since the revolution.

The key message that emerges from Dobson’s investigations is that today’s autocrats are not idiots. They have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Putin is not Stalin, and Hu Jintao is not Mao Zedong. In many cases, Dobson writes, modern dictators understand that it’s in their interest to observe the appearance of democratic norms even while they’re subverting them.

Chávez, for example, loves holding elections, and on election day you can pretty much vote for whom you want. That most Venezuelans end up voting for the president reflects the enormous effort he has put into manipulating the media, the courts, and the bureaucracy every other day of the year. "Election day is not a problem," a former Venezuelan election official tells Dobson. "All the damage — the use of money, goods, excess power, communications — happens beforehand."

As Dobson notes, Chávez has implanted these black arts into Venezuela’s political culture so effectively that it’s hard to imagine how even the admirably revitalized opposition can compete. The president’s control of the airwaves is so deft that he appears to have suffered little political damage from soaring inflation and a skyrocketing murder rate. It could well be that only nature, in the form of the cancer now ravaging the leader’s body, is capable of putting an end to chavismo.

Some of Dobson’s most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The Chinese communists, he concludes, are the least complacent of today’s modern authoritarians. They’ve devoted intense study to the collapse of previous dictatorial regimes, from Ceausescu to Suharto, and they’ve worked hard to draw corresponding lessons — so far with remarkable success. As Dobson points out, most observers in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989 would have been shocked to learn that the Communist Party is not only still in power today, but thriving. "The Chinese Communist Party understands what its vulnerabilities are," Dobson told me recently. "No one needs to lecture that government on what they need to worry about at night." (Hint: Corruption and inequality lead the list.)

As for Putin, Dobson grudgingly credits him with figuring out how to maintain control without resorting to Soviet-style extremes. Twenty-first-century Russians can travel abroad or avail themselves of the Internet largely to their heart’s content, since Putin understands that completely isolating his citizens from the world at large is a game with rapidly diminishing returns. Instead, like Chávez, he’s focused on controlling the media that matter (like national TV) and carefully manipulating laws to tilt the political playing field in favor of the state. And so far, at least, he’s managed to pull the whole thing off without putting large numbers of opponents into concentration camps.

Putin, says Dobson, also appreciates that one of the biggest dangers to any autocracy comes at the moment when it loses touch with popular sentiment. So what do you do when you’ve tamed parliament so thoroughly that you can no longer use it to generate useful feedback about the needs and fears of the citizenry? In Putin’s case, you create a new body called the "Public Chamber," a sort of large-scale advisory panel — including representatives from authentic non-government organizations — that offers "the advice, counsel, and criticism that a toothless Duma cannot." It just doesn’t have any power.

And this, of course, is precisely where modern autocrats run into trouble. The fact that authoritarian regimes feel compelled to act like they’re really listening to voters reflects the extent to which democratic norms have become part of the woodwork. It’s no coincidence that Russia’s new culture of civic protest has been galvanized precisely by government vote-rigging. Nowadays Russians actually expect their votes to count, so going through the motions of an election no longer suffices. Malaysians, meanwhile, have been voting in more or less real elections for years — but the evidence is mounting that people there want their votes to be more than a legitimizing rubber stamp for a benignly despotic state. The political landscape is shifting accordingly.

Even for the most savvy of autocrats, then, these are testing times. Despite his cold-eyed assessment of the relative maneuverability of today’s undemocratic regimes, Dobson firmly believes that the forces of democracy are in the ascendance. "The Arab Spring is just a blink," he says. "The tide has clearly been in the direction of freedom and pluralistic societies." The rapid spread of information is making it harder for governments to concentrate power, thus chipping away at the very essence of authoritarianism. A rumor of government misbehavior in one part of China can immediately trigger riots in another place thousands of miles away. "This is not something the Ming Dynasty had to worry about," Dobson observes. "So you can’t tell me that the tasks these regimes have to worry about haven’t become more complicated."

Dobson might well be right. But even if he is, that’s certainly no reason for democrats to rest on their laurels. For the moment, at least, there are plenty of dictators to go around. And they’re still learning.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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