What spells the doom of dictators? Nobody really knows, and there are so many “whats” that the whole subject defies quantification. Coups and assassinations, revolutions, defeats in war, and even sudden collapses, are all to be found in the texts, ancient and modern. Even those of us who have predicted the fall of tyrannies, as I did in the case of the Soviet Empire, are surprised when it happens, and almost always fail to foresee how it happens.
Indeed, it’s the wrong question. Since there are so many variations, and since one tyrant may survive a crisis that would bring down another dictator, we should ask specific questions about specific tyrants, and use historical examples of similar situations to guide our understanding.
Some years back, when I was working with Walter Laqueur, I asked him what he was reading, and he said something like “I mainly read biographies.” A good lesson there; some dictators will fall in crisis, while others grow stronger and more resolute. Which sort are we dealing with in a given case? So the question is not, what brings down dictatorships in general, but “how likely is this tyrant to fall?” We have to look carefully at the unique characteristics of a given dictatorship, and avoid the fruitless search for “rules.”
Finally, don’t forget that the Almighty put us on earth for entertainment value. Most of the time we’re likely to get it wrong. How many of us expected Qadaffi to fight to the death? How many expected Gorbachev and his Soviet Empire to implode without a fight? We’re usually not smart enough to foresee such things.
That is why the nose, not the brain, is the greatest instrument for sensing when a regime is in danger of coming down. The nose detects the first hints of rot, which generally attend an imminent failure of will by the ruler. Ergo, we need to pay particular attention to the odors of the tyrant him/herself, and the nature of his/her tyranny. While there are no general rules, there are some patterns that might help us answer — or sniff out — the right questions. If we even ask them.
I’m always intrigued when somebody thinks he or she can confidently predict that a tyrant is about to fall, as if it’s all a question of applying the good old manual. I’ve been intrigued for months now, as expert upon expert tells us that Bashar Assad of Damascus is going down. Just the other day, no less a pundit than Dennis Ross, recently retired from the Obama administration, let us know that he is quite confident about it:
This is a regime that is entirely dependent on coercion, and the coercion is failing, and when a regime is entirely dependent on coercion that is not succeeding, you know that that’s a regime that’s not going to be around for an extended period.
I wish! Let’s take just two counter-examples from Syria’s neighbor, Iran. In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeqh drove the shah into foreign exile, and millions marched through the streets of Tehran and other major Iranian cities to celebrate Mossadeqh’s victory. Yet the shah quickly returned, and Mossadeqh was removed, and millions marched to celebrate that event, just days after the pro-Mossadeqh parades. So regimes can fall and rise again.
More recently, in the summer of 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest the electoral fraud that retained Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential office. The regime unleashed coercion, but the demonstrations continued. Just as in Syria today, the coercion wasn’t working; if anything, it was provoking even greater challenges to the regime’s legitimacy. The regime cracked down harder, dissidents were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered, and the regime survived…for an “extended period.”
There are plenty of such examples, including the “Prague Spring” of 1968, where coercion failed for a while, but then succeeded. And there are other cases, such as the failed “color revolutions” in some former Soviet satellites, where it seemed tyranny had been defeated, but it came back. Ask Putin and Medvedev how that one works. Ask the Lebanese, while you’re at it. Or the Egyptians.