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Post Partisan
Posted at 04:10 PM ET, 03/28/2011

Why David Brooks is wrong about dictators

Dobson is guest-blogging for The Post.
Last Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks offered his takeaway from the topsy-turvy state of dictatorship in the world today. Essentially, it boils down to this: It pays to be crazy.

After giving a thorough rundown on the many reasons for which Colonel Moammar Gaddafi could qualify as unhinged — and there are many — Brooks offered this advice:

“The paradoxical fact is that if you want to stay in office as a dictator, it is better to be a narcissistic totalitarian than a run-of-the-mill autocrat. Megalomianiacs like Qaddafi seek to control every neuron in their peoples’ heads and to control every aspect of life. They destroy all outside authority and civil society. They personalize every institution so that things like the army exist to serve their holy selves, rather than the nation at large…Qaddafi’s unhinged narcissistic oddness seems to be the key to his longevity. So remember: If you’re going to be a tyrant, be a wacko. It’s safer.”

It’s a fun analysis to ponder, but it is utterly wrong. For starters, I wonder how well served Gaddafi feels by his “narcissistic oddness” as he and his sons shuttle from one bunker to the next? Right about now, as a rag-tag army of rebels close in and a NATO-led no-fly zone effectively cuts him off from wide swaths of his country, I suspect he wishes he hadn’t recklessly goaded the international community into action. It is patently obvious that in the past several weeks it would have been much safer for Gaddafi if he hadn’t channeled his inner “wacko.” If dictators around the world are looking at events in Libya, they aren’t saying to themselves, “I should be more like Moammar.”

The more important point is the world is still rich with authoritarians who are far more sophisticated than many of the North African and Middle Eastern dictators who find themselves in so much trouble today. These other dictators, strongmen and tyrants may be repressive, but they cleverly mask that repression behind a facade of legality and procedure. They have the temerity to speak out for human rights, even as they trample on the very concept. Rather than operate as some sort of totalitarian throwback, they have reduced the role of the state in people’s personal affairs while developing a far more skilled and surgical means of maintaining public compliance. They recognize that the costs for totalitarianism have grown too high, so they work to achieve similar goals — regime survival — through more subtle means. Who are these authoritarians? Pick a continent. You’ll find them almost everywhere, from China to Russia, Malaysia to Venezuela, Bolivia to Vietnam.

The idea of who should be giving whom advice reminds me of a statement Hosni Mubarak made before a trip to Moscow in 2006. At the time, speculation was rampant over whether Vladimir Putin would revise the Russian constitution so that he could serve a third term as president. Putin ultimately opted to handpick a much weaker successor in Dmitri Medvedev, and he traded the presidency for the prime minster’s office. Thus, by most accounts, Putin has been able to extend his rule as Russia’s de facto leader while deflecting criticism for acting undemocratically.

That’s how a pro does it. And, tellingly, that is not what Mubarak advised. He told the Russian newspaper reporter that Putin should ignore the constitution. “Let him stay. Russia needs Putin,” said Mubarak. Of course, Mubarak now is out of a job, and Putin’s popularity remains the envy of most democratically elected leaders.       

There will be many lessons for dictators and democrats when the dust settles from this Arab Spring. But I doubt, when all is said and done, that Moammar Gaddafi will be the model.

By William J. Dobson  |  04:10 PM ET, 03/28/2011

 
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