What can we learn from the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Qadhafi? First, we should note that he is the second Arab dictator to die in the last decade, the first being the Iraqi Saddam Hussein. Both met their demise due to direct Western intervention.
There are three lessons for the region:
1. To get rid of a dictator, you need either Western intervention or the support of the armed forces.
Consider this simple list:
Dictatorships overthrown with Western forces taking the lead: Iraq, Libya
Dictatorships overthrown with the backing of the army: Egypt, Tunisia
Failed revolutions when these two factors are lacking: Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen.
That shows that it is not popular revolt that changes things in the region.
Dictators must fight or die and concessions don’t help.
The Western view is that revolutions are prevented by moderation and compromise, steps that please the masses and thus discourage them from revolting. This is so deeply ingrained that Western observers simply cannot conceive that approach as anything but a natural law. In contrast, in the Middle East, the political philosophy has been based on the idea that force and intimidation prevail.
With one notable exception, where brilliant maneuvering and concessions (albeit often illusory ones) worked — Morocco — the Middle East has shown that its approach works locally. Even in Turkey, where democratic norms are observed, once in power the Islamist regime has gained ground through toughness and not through concessions. The prisons are full of its opponents.
The event in Eastern Europe that most impressed Arab governments was the assassination in Romania of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena. They knew that this could happen to them. When combined with the lesson from the USSR — how Mikhail Gorbachev’s engagement in reforms brought him down — these events played a central role in destroying the 1990s era of toying with possible moderation. The “old-time religion” of toughness and repression was reaffirmed.
Nowhere has this proven to be truer than in Syria. Despite Western fantasies of moderation and reform from dictator Bashar al-Assad, there has never been the slightest chance of this happening. The whole Obama foreign policy toward Syria was demonstrably foolish.
2. The events of the last year have reinforced this worldview — repress or die. Have no illusions.
An interesting case study of how this works is offered by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi in a superb short article, “Assessing Bahrain.” The strength of al-Tamimi’s analysis is that he points out both the real threat (Iranian-backed, radical Islamist Shia opposition) and the tragedy (the regime’s failure to deal with a more moderate Shia faction that wants a constitutional monarchy and isn’t Islamist).
But would it have been possible to work with the latter without ending up having the hardliners triumph? Impossible to say for sure, of course, but the hardline ruling faction in the monarchy wasn’t interested in finding out, and the Saudis certainly didn’t want to take any chances. Hence, they turned to pure repression and are still in power.
3. (Ironically) You can’t trust the West, so be tough and defend yourself
Remember a peculiar fact: even though Gaddafi was generally a horribly repressive anti-American dictator, in his final years he tried making a deal with the Americans. Gaddafi was frightened by the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 and didn’t want to be next on the list. So he cooperated, gave up his nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs, and reduced his foreign subversive efforts.
That did not save him from being overthrown by the United States, just as it did not save a genuine American ally, President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. On this point, I’m not advocating anything about what the United States should have done in Libya but just observing how it will be received in the region.