Many dictators have sought nuclear weapons; some succeeded, some came close, others failed spectacularly. A careful examination of two such regimes illuminates why. Today, many dictatorships are becoming personalist, in which leaders dominate decision-making at the expense of formal state institutions. According to recent research, personalist dictators are more likely to pursue nuclear weapons and are less likely to get them, but they can become increasingly dangerous and unrestrained if they succeed.

In my recent book, “Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya failed to build nuclear weapons,” I revisit the unsuccessful attempts in those two countries. Libya failed badly at its nuclear-weapons program, whereas Iraq came dangerously close to a major breakthrough when its program was interrupted by the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire.

Using documents and interviews with scientists, doctors, journalists, academics, military officers and ex-officials, I reconstruct the history of both countries’ nuclear programs. The stories that emerge challenge key assumptions in the conventional wisdom about these projects and regimes. At the same time, this account brings important differences between the two cases to light.

Personalist leaders weaken their states to concentrate power in their own hands, but they do so in different ways. Saddam Hussein fragmented Iraq’s state apparatus, whereas Moammar Gaddafi dismantled Libya’s state institutions. Such strategies weaken states in distinct ways, which affect their capacity to build nuclear weapons. Gaddafi’s efforts to create a “stateless state” were particularly damaging. Personalist dictators use different strategies to manage their nuclear programs. But they share some common challenges, as weak state institutions make micromanagement very costly and oversight difficult.

Below, I summarize five key findings that challenge the conventional wisdom about these regimes and nuclear programs.

  1. Nuclear programs were not micromanaged or closely monitored.

Conventional wisdom holds that personalist leaders are particularly ill-equipped to acquire nuclear weapons because their regimes are sycophantic and micromanaged. But the following examples from Iraq and Libya’s nuclear programs tell a different story.

In Libya, some nuclear-program staff members did not show up for work because of the commute, while others were absent because they took additional jobs to supplement their meager salary. As a result, laboratories were empty when the program was supposed to be expanding. In Iraq, the management of nuclear scientists oscillated between meritocracy and nepotism. The leaders of the nuclear-weapons program reported selectively to Hussein — and concealed major failures and delays — without getting caught. Hussein realized his scientists were not giving him the full story but lacked the institutional capacity to audit them. Neither leader had a realistic idea of how long it would take to acquire nuclear weapons.

  1. Implementing a nuclear program is much more difficult than launching one.

Political scientists argue that because personalist dictators concentrate power in their own hands, they are less constrained than other authoritarian leaders. The absence of such constraints lowers barriers to making decisions, including the decision to launch nuclear-weapons programs. But implementation is another story. Because personalist leaders weaken their formal state institutions, they lack the resources to run and audit complex technical projects such as nuclear-weapons programs. These weaknesses impede the planning, progress and monitoring of these projects. These problems were evident in the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program but were much worse in Libya.

  1. Neither Hussein nor Gaddafi made nuclear weapons their main priority.

Even after U.S. military strikes — as Libya experienced in 1986 — or a preventive attack on a declared nuclear facility — as Iraq experienced in 1981 — these leaders’ commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons waxed and waned. Although both events reinforced these leaders’ commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons, other concerns — protracted wars with neighboring states during the 1980s and domestic challenges to their own rule — trumped these ambitions.

  1. Hussein and Gaddafi made different choices about pursuing guns and butter.

Fueled by petro-dollars, Hussein and Gaddafi invested in large militaries, but they also sought large-scale domestic reforms. Both leaders opted to pursue nuclear weapons as they were attempting to diversify their economies. Once their oil money began to dry up, they had to prioritize.

Gaddafi’s choices reflected his internal balancing of regime factions and growing concerns about domestic opposition. He pursued both nuclear weapons and reintegration into the global economy during the 1990s. Ultimately, he abandoned the failing nuclear-weapons program as part of a broader rapprochement with the United States and Britain in late 2003.

Hussein, on the other hand, chose to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990, at particularly sensitive moment in the nuclear program, apparently driven by concerns about Iraq’s economic troubles. Faced with economic sanctions and inspections after the 1991 Gulf War, the nuclear-weapons program was permanently dismantled.

  1. State institutions are instruments of power but also sites of negotiation and resistance.

Nuclear scientists in Libya and Iraq were not automatons. Nor did they necessarily know what their leaders wanted them to do. In fact, Iraqi scientists once jokingly characterized their program as one of “unclear physics.” While they lived and worked in brutal regimes, the management and technical staff of these nuclear programs occasionally pushed back. For example, during the 1977 conflict between Egypt and Libya, the Egyptian staff working in the Libyan nuclear establishment effectively went on strike for better conditions. In Iraq, scientists opted for their preferred technologies, even when these failed to yield results. Hussein’s son-in-law even broke Hussein’s cardinal rule for the nuclear program by seeking sensitive assistance from abroad.

Personalist dictators want to be seen as omniscient but often come across as incompetent brutes. Neither extreme is accurate. These leaders vary in their efforts to undermine state institutions, affecting their prospect of success in complex projects such as nuclear-weapons programs. Other personalist regimes are also likely to vary in terms of state capacity, but their leaders could turn out to be more determined in acquiring nuclear weapons than Hussein and Gaddafi were.

Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oslo. She is the author of “Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya failed to build nuclear weapons,” (Cornell University Press, 2016).