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.
We just don’t know, and cannot know, how Syria’s going to turn out, nor Libya, nor Tunisia. We don’t know, and probably cannot know, how long Bashar Assad will keep slaughtering his people (right now there is no reason to think he’ll shrink from most any level of violence against them), and we don’t know and cannot even guess how many top Syrian military officers will defect to the dissidents. Moreover, we don’t have a clear picture of the qualities of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army that is fighting Bashar’s army of some 700,000 armed men.
Most importantly, we don’t know whether, or to what extent, the Syrian opposition will get serious foreign support, which may be the crucial element in deciding Assad’s fate. My heart sinks when I hear policy makers like Dennis Ross invoke a slogan instead of calling for action, because when such a person says Assad is doomed, I hear him saying “not to worry, we don’t have to do anything, it’s in the bag.”
That’s the sort of intellectual error that subverts good policy. There’s a big fight in Syria, and someone’s going to win. If we want Assad to lose, as Obama has said, it behooves us to support his enemies. Ross’s historical law notwithstanding, it’s unlikely the Syrian opposition can win on their own (any more than Qadaffi’s enemies could have won without substantial Western military action). Again, the next-door neighbor points the way.
Vigorous support for the Green Movement in 2009-2010 might well have brought Mousavi & co. to power in Tehran, but the West, including President Obama, in effect supported the mullahcracy, and never called for regime change. This will certainly have encouraged the Iranians and the Assad mafia to fight fiercely in the current crisis, since they think they have learned that Obama will do nothing to bring them down. To be sure, the president is calling for regime change in Damascus, but, so far, the Iranian “lesson” seems right: Obama isn’t providing meaningful support to Assad’s opponents, thereby leaving the tyrant a free hand.
So I wouldn’t be so sure that Assad is doomed. Nor, on the other hand, am I at all inclined to believe that the Iranian regime has prevailed. These crises are determined by people fighting for power and survival, and questions of will, nerve, luck, leadership, and unanticipated events are very much in play (earthquakes, for example, have sometimes been important in bringing down dictators, as, for example, the Nicaraguan tyrant Anastasio Somoza).
And just as the Syrian killers, working hand-in-mailed-glove with Iranian thugs, think they’ve got recent history on their side, so the Iranian people are watching Syria very carefully. If the Syrian opposition does win — especially if the West is in the fight — the Iranians will take heart. But if we continue to betray freedom in Syria, the Iranians on both sides will conclude that the “history lesson” was well learned. And that lesson is not that coercion fails, but quite the opposite: he who fights best, laughs last.
Instead of reading tea leaves, our leaders would do better to try to win. But don’t hold your breath.