Think Again

Think Again: Dictators

Arab autocrats may be tottering, 
but the world's tyrants aren't all quaking in their steel-toed boots.

"Dictatorships are all about the dictator."

Rarely, if ever. In the first months after the Arab revolutions began, the world's televisions were filled with instantly iconic images of a crumbling old order: the Ben Ali clan's seaside villa on fire in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak's stilted pre-resignation speeches in Egypt, Muammar al-Qaddafi's rambling, defiant diatribes from a bombed-out house in Libya. They were a reminder that one of the most enduring political archetypes of the 20th century, the ruthless dictator, had persisted into the 21st.

How persistent are they? The U.S. NGO Freedom House this year listed 47 countries as "not free" -- and ruled over by a range of authoritarian dictators. Their numbers have certainly fallen from the last century, which brought us quite a list: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Khomeini, and a host of others now synonymous with murderous, repressive government. But invoking such tyrants, while a useful shorthand in international politics, unfortunately reinforces a troublesome myth: that dictatorships are really only about dictators.

The image of a single omnipotent leader ensconced in a mystery-shrouded Kremlin or a garishly ornate presidential palace took hold during the Cold War. But dictatorships don't just run themselves. Performing the basic tasks expected of even a despotic government -- establishing order, levying taxes, controlling borders, and overseeing the economy -- requires the cooperation of a whole range of players: businessmen, bureaucrats, leaders of labor unions and political parties, and, of course, specialists in coercion like the military and security forces. And keeping them all happy and working together isn't any easier for a dictator than it is for a democrat.

Different dictatorships have different tools for keeping things running. The communist regimes of the 20th century relied on mass-membership political parties to maintain discipline, as did some non-communist autocracies. The authoritarian system that ruled Mexico for 70 years -- what Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa once called "the perfect dictatorship" -- was orchestrated by the nationalist Institutional Revolutionary Party, a massive organization whose influence extended from the president's compound in Los Pinos to the local seats of government in every tiny village. Egypt's recently departed Hosni Mubarak was similarly buttressed for three decades by his National Democratic Party.

Then there's the junta option: a military-run dictatorship. These have advantages -- discipline and order, and the capacity to repress opponents, among them -- but also drawbacks, most notably a small natural constituency that doesn't extend far beyond the epaulet-wearing classes. The generals who ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 solved this problem by offering controlled access to a parliament in which economic elites and other powerful interests could voice their demands and participate in governance. However, this proved to be a difficult balancing act for a military that found it hard to manage elections and the pressures of a public increasingly dissatisfied with its record on the economy and human rights, and the generals ultimately headed back to their barracks.

At the extreme, some authoritarian governments do approximate the dictator-centric regimes of the popular imagination. Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for more than 30 years, and the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti are classic examples. Here, order is maintained largely by distributing patronage through personal or other networks: clans, ethnic groups, and the like. But paradoxically, these are the most unstable dictatorships. Keeping a government operating smoothly is difficult in the absence of a broad organizational or institutional base, and the whole system rises and falls with the fate of one man.


"The power of the masses can topple autocrats."

Not by itself. In 1989, people power swept across Eastern Europe. Mass strikes in Poland brought the country's communist rulers to the table to negotiate their way out of power. After hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Prague's Wenceslas Square, one of Eastern Europe's most brutal communist regimes crumbled and handed over power in Czechoslovakia to a motley crew of playwrights, priests, academics, and friends of Frank Zappa. In East Germany, teeming crowds simply walked out of communism's westernmost showpiece to seek asylum in, and then reunification with, the West. And people power, as Ferdinand Marcos found to his dismay in the Philippines in 1986, was not limited to communism or Eastern Europe.

But there was far more to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and autocratic regimes elsewhere than the impressive moral authority of crowds. As the Chinese showed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, capitulating to pro-democracy activists in the streets is hardly the only option. There have been plenty of other places where people power has failed disastrously in the face of a well-organized military response. In Hungary, the popular uprising of 1956 was brutally crushed by Red Army tanks. Burma's 2007 Saffron Revolution produced little more than life sentences for the country's dissident Buddhist monks; Iran's 2009 Green Revolution fell to the batons of the Basij two years later.

What distinguishes people power's successes from its failures? Size, of course, matters, but autocrats tend to fall to crowds only when they have first lost the support of key allies at home or abroad. The Egyptian military's decision to abandon Mubarak and protect the protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, for instance, was crucial to the president's downfall this February.

How can demonstrators persuade regime stalwarts to jump ship? In Eastern Europe, the geopolitical sea change engineered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his allies obviously helped -- but you can't exactly bring down the Iron Curtain again. Regimes with professionalized militaries separate from civilian authorities might be more vulnerable to defections; regimes based on highly ideological political parties are less likely to see their members break ranks. The credible threat of ending up at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague or having your Swiss bank accounts frozen can work wonders as well. But unfortunately for protesters, predicting authoritarian reactions to uprisings is far from an exact science -- which is little consolation when your head is being cracked by a riot cop.

"The more brutal the dictator, the harder to oust."

Unfortunately, true. Reflecting on the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the "most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform." What was correct in the 18th century is, sadly, still true in the 21st. It is probably not a coincidence that the list of authoritarians removed by street protest in recent years is largely populated by rulers whose regimes allowed at least a modicum of political opposition. Tyrants like Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze, Kyrgyzstan's Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak may have been horrible in many ways, but their regimes were undoubtedly more permissive than those of many who have held onto power to this day.

If this is true, why do any dictators allow opposition in the first place? And why don't they simply go the full Tiananmen at the first sign of protest? Because running a truly ghastly dictatorship is tougher today than it used to be.

The interconnections of 21st-century civilization make it harder to control information and far more difficult and costly to isolate a country from the outside world than it was in the 20th. The death of communism, meanwhile, has robbed leftists and right-wing strongmen alike of a cover story for their anti-democratic practices. In the past decade, rulers of countries such as Uzbekistan and Yemen have used the West's newfound fear of militant Islam -- and the logistical necessities of the United States' post-9/11 wars -- to similar ends, but they number far fewer than the ideological tyrants who divvied up whole continents under Cold War pretexts a generation ago.

The result is that in more and more places, rulers are compelled to justify their practices by adding a touch of "democracy." Vladimir Putin chose to stand down -- though not far down -- in 2008 rather than break Russia's constitutional ban against a third consecutive presidential term, and even the Chinese Communist Party allows some competitive elections at the town and village levels. There are exceptions to this trend, of course: Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Burma spring to mind. But such regimes feel increasingly like remnants of the late, unlamented 20th century, rather than harbingers of things to come.

"Personality cults are crazy."

Crazy like a fox. Do North Koreans really believe that Kim Jong Il can change the weather based on his mood? Do Libyans think Qaddafi's Green Book is a brilliant work of political philosophy? Do Turkmen really think that the Ruhnama, the religious text authored by their late post-Soviet dictator -- and self-styled spiritual leader -- Saparmurat Niyazov, is a sacred scripture on par with the Quran and the Bible?

Probably not, but for the dictators' purposes, they don't have to. As political scientist Xavier Márquez has argued, personality cults are as strategic as they are narcissistic. Part of the problem that dictators' would-be opponents face is figuring out who else opposes the leader; compelling the populace to publicly embrace preposterous myths makes that harder still. Official mythmaking is also a means of enforcing discipline within the regime. Stalin -- the progenitor of the modern dictator personality cult -- understood well that his self-mythologizing would be too much for some of his old comrades to swallow; Lenin, after all, had specifically warned against it. But those who might have objected were swiftly dispatched. For the apparatchiks who remained, submitting to the cult was humiliating -- and humiliation is a powerful tool for controlling potential rivals.

But personality cults, like most authoritarian technologies, have their drawbacks. The bigger the cult, the bigger the challenge of succession. Heirs to the throne really have just two options: dismantle the cult or go one better. The former is perilous; in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev's famous 1956 secret speech -- the posthumous critique of Stalin that gave us the term "personality cult" -- was, after all, secret, deemed too explosive for the Soviet public. Today, North Korea's ruling Kim family illustrates the hazards of the alternative: Now that the official newspapers have already reported that the current Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, has mastered teleportation, what's his son and newly designated heir, Kim Jong Un, supposed to do for an encore?

"Sometimes it takes a dictator to get the job done."

Actually it doesn't. The past two years have not done much to advertise the abilities of the Western democratic model of government to take large and painful but necessary actions. Frustrated over everything from a failure to balance budgets to an apparent inability to face up to the challenges of climate change, more than a few Westerners have turned their gaze wistfully toward the heavy-handed rule of the Communist Party in China. "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks," the New York Times' Thomas Friedman wrote in a 2009 column. "But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages." This March, Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times about how "China has achieved greatness."

This romanticizing of authoritarianism is not new; Augusto Pinochet's murderous regime in 1970s Chile was once cheered by many in Washington as an ugly but necessary instrument of economic reform. Yearning for a strong hand, however, is rooted in several fallacies. First, it conflates the failings of one form of democracy -- in Friedman's case, the gridlocked American version -- with an entire category of governance. Second, it assumes that dictators are more able than democrats to undertake unpopular but essential reforms. But unpopular decisions don't simply become popular because an autocrat is making them -- just remember the late North Korean finance chief Pak Nam Gi, who ended up in front of a firing squad following the public backlash against the confiscatory currency reform the Kim regime pushed through in 2009. In fact, authoritarians, lacking the legitimacy of popular election, may be even more fearful of upsetting the apple cart than democrats are. In Putin's Russia, for instance, leaders are unable to dial back the massive military expenditures that keep key constituencies quiet but that even their own ministers recognize to be unsustainable.

Besides, suggesting that dictators can force better policies upon their people assumes that a dictator is likely to know what those better policies are. The idea that there are technocratic solutions to most economic, social, and environmental problems might be comforting, but it is usually wrong. Such questions rarely have purely technical, apolitical answers -- and only in a democracy can they be aired and answered in a way that, if not entirely fair, is at least broadly acceptable.

"Digital revolutions are bad news for autocrats."

Not necessarily. New technologies -- from the fax machine to the Internet to Facebook -- have invariably been heralded as forces for upending dictatorial regimes. And of course, if cell phones and Twitter made no difference at all, then pro-democracy activists wouldn't use them. But the real test of technology is its ability to shift the balance of power between dictators and those trying to unseat them -- to make revolutions more frequent, faster, or more successful. And though it's too early to know for sure, the arc of revolutions in 2011 doesn't look that different so far from the lower-tech upheavals of 1989, or, for that matter, 1848.

What makes a difference is how quickly authoritarians can work out how to counter a new innovation, or use it themselves. Sometimes this happens quickly: The barricades invented in Paris that made the revolutions of 1848 possible were briefly useful, but militaries soon figured out how to use cannons against them. Similarly, today's authoritarians are already learning how to use cell phones and Facebook to identify and track their opponents. In Iran, for instance, Facebook posts, tweets, and emails were used as evidence against protesters in the wake of the failed Green Revolution.

As it happens, some of the most enduring innovations have been the least technological. Mass protests, petitions, and general strikes, though now ubiquitous tactics, were at first ideas as novel as Twitter, and they have continued to play a crucial role in spreading democracy and civil rights around the world. It's a useful reminder that not all the new tools that matter come in a box or over a Wi-Fi connection.

"Dictatorship is on the way out."

Not in our lifetime. The recent upheavals in the Middle East, though inspiring, have happened against a gloomy backdrop. Freedom House reported that in 2010, for the fifth year in a row, countries with improving political and civil rights were outnumbered by ones where they were getting worse -- the longest such run since the organization started collecting data in 1972. Two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse, democracy may be robust in formerly communist Central Europe, Latin America, and even the Balkans, but most former Soviet states remain quite authoritarian. And though a few Arab countries are newly freed of their tyrants, they are still very much in transition. Being poor or corrupt, as Egypt and Tunisia are, does not rule out being democratic -- think of India -- but it does make it harder to build a stable democratic system.

Nevertheless, the Arab revolutions have offered a spark of hope, one that has clearly worried dictators in places as far off as Moscow and Beijing. The question is what the world's liberal democracies should do, or not do, to push things along. Survey the United States' long history of democracy-promotion successes and failures, and the inescapable lesson, even setting aside recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that less is usually more. Providing aid -- as the United States did to the opposition in places like Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia -- or simply setting an example are better means of toppling a dictator than actually doing the toppling.

But in either case, it's important to remember that powerful Western friends aren't everything. After all, the lesson of Tunisia and Egypt is that dictators sometimes fall despite, not because of, American help.

Think Again

Think Again: The Afghan Drug Trade

Why cracking down on Afghanistan's opium business won't help stop the Taliban -- or the United States' own drug problems.

"The Afghan Drug Industry Mostly Benefits the Taliban."

Far from it. Today, Afghanistan essentially holds a monopoly on heroin exports to the Old World. The country accounts for more than 90 percent of global production; although drug markets evolve over time, Afghanistan's production costs are so much lower than its would-be competitors' that it is a safe bet to assume the country will be the leader for at least five or 10 more years.

In the popular and American political imaginations, the Taliban are thought to be the big winners from this near monopoly, and there is some truth to this. The "narcoterrorist" label is often misused, but the Taliban are the real deal. They really do use profits from the opium trade to finance terrorist attacks on civilian and military targets. Although the Taliban traffic only modest quantities entirely on their own, taxing other people's drug deals is an important source of revenue; no one knows how much the Taliban profit from the drug trade, but whether they do isn't up for serious debate.

But just because the Taliban benefit from the heroin business doesn't mean the heroin business mostly benefits the Taliban. Consider the numbers (or at least the rough ones -- production figures fluctuate from year to year, conversion rates are crude estimates, and price data beyond the opium bazaars are sketchy). In a typical year, Afghan farmers sell about 7,000 tons of opium at $130 a kilogram to traffickers who convert that into 1,000 tons of heroin, worth perhaps $2,500 a kilogram in Afghanistan and $4,000 at wholesale in neighboring countries. That works out to roughly $900 million in annual revenues for the farmers, $1.6 billion for traffickers from operations within Afghanistan, and another $1.5 billion for those who smuggle heroin out of the country. (2010 was atypical; a poppy blight drove opium production down and prices up.)

The Taliban's take is subject to debate, with responsible estimates varying from $70 million to $500 million -- but either way it's not a big slice of the pie. The Taliban take 2 to 12 percent of a $4 billion industry; farmers, traffickers, smugglers, and corrupt officials collectively earn much more. It is not clear why the Taliban have been so unsuccessful at translating their power and influence into a larger share of trafficker revenues, but one thing is clear: They have nowhere to go but up. Upsetting the apple cart just to see where it lands is ill-advised; to the extent that counternarcotics efforts succeed, they are more likely to increase than to reduce the revenues and power of the Taliban.

"American Drug Addicts are Supporting the Taliban."

Hardly. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, the Office of National Drug Control Policy ran public service announcements implying that American drug users were supporting terrorists targeting the United States. In fact, while users in the United States are supporting plenty of unsavory characters, they aren't likely to be in Afghanistan. The big money in U.S. drug markets is still in cocaine, all of which is produced in the Western Hemisphere.

The United States consumes only about 5 percent of the world's illegal opium, and most of that comes from Colombia and Mexico. Most Afghan opiates, meanwhile, never leave Asia -- they are that continent's health problem, and to a lesser extent Europe's. Iran and Russia may have a stake in Afghan exports, but protecting those countries' citizens from drug abuse is not obviously a major U.S. interest unless the Russian and Iranian governments are willing to offer something of value in exchange.

"Reducing Production in Afghanistan Hurts Traffickers Everywhere, Including the Taliban."

Wrong. In December, the Guardian interpreted news of the Taliban's attempts to stockpile opium as an effort to "manipulate street prices in the west." An economist would laugh -- or perhaps cry -- at this notion. As Thomas C. Schelling pointed out in the 1960s, law enforcement and organized criminal enterprises are on the same side when it comes to the price of illicit commodities: They both want them to be higher.

Yes, entirely eliminating Afghan drug production would eliminate Afghan drug revenues. It would also be impossible. And though reducing production is possible, reducing it will also drive up Afghan export prices more than proportionally, increasing overall drug revenues.

Monopolists facing inelastic demand don't worry about production reductions -- they love them. Less production means higher revenues; this is why OPEC meets to discuss how to constrain oil production, not expand it. Counternarcotics strategy solves this coordination problem for the drug traffickers, reducing exports and increasing industry revenues -- as amply illustrated by this year's blight, which reduced production by far more than the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) could have managed, but also drove opium prices up over $200 per kilogram. 

Retail drug demand responds to changes in retail prices -- maybe not quite proportionally, but it does respond. However, even large changes in export prices produce retail price changes that are quite modest, in percentage terms. The reason is that the value of processed heroin in Afghanistan is a small fraction of its value in the countries that consume it: A kilogram that sells for $3,000 at export from Afghanistan fetches $70,000 at wholesale in Britain, and perhaps $300,000 at retail. The price of drugs at export is such a small fraction of the final retail price that the latter would register only the largest disturbances in the former.

You would have to double the Afghan export price, for instance, to bump up the retail price in Iran by 20 percent, which in turn would suppress consumption there by only about 15 percent (using a conventional estimate for the sensitivity of consumption to price). And because Western European (and U.S.) prices are five to 20 times higher than Asian wholesale prices, those markets are among the last to be shorted when supplies are tight. So even if the Western Hemisphere's heroin exports vanished overnight, the quantity of heroin produced and exported from Afghanistan would have next to no bearing on rates of dependence or drug-related crime in the United States.

"Reducing Supply Hurts the Taliban in Particular."

Just the opposite. When military action or law enforcement reduces Afghan heroin exports, total trafficker revenues increase, but not everyone wins. Naturally, traffickers who are arrested or killed are worse off, but those who remain are in much better shape -- they capture a larger slice of a bigger pie.

In an ideal world, law enforcement would selectively target the nastiest of the nasty dealers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage and shifting market share toward traffickers who are merely bad in a common-criminal sense. The DEA and military understand this and try to selectively disrupt the traffickers who are linked most closely to the insurgency. But Afghanistan is not an ideal world. Even if coalition agents act sensibly on the available operational intelligence, that intelligence is far from perfect and there is good reason to fear that it can be systematically imperfect in perverse ways.

Afghan officials play a key role in obtaining and evaluating targeting information, for both cultural and legal reasons. But Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt states on Earth. Target selection is an exercise in discretion, and whenever officials exercise discretion, stakeholders have an incentive to sway those decisions with bribes or threats. Inasmuch as the most powerful insurgents are, almost by definition, the most skilled at bribing or intimidating officials, increased enforcement can specifically benefit those insurgents, even if the U.S. military and DEA do their best to avoid it.

"Destroying Afghan Farmers' Poppy Fields Is a Bad Idea."

Often, but not always. In the early years of the Afghanistan war, coalition policy included widespread forced eradication. In June 2009, however, Barack Obama's administration announced that U.S. and other international forces would no longer conduct eradication operations, on which the late Richard Holbrooke said the United States had "wasted hundreds of millions of dollars."

The sensible motivation for this reversal was recognition that eradication produced unintended consequences. Pulling up a farmer's opium crop could generate ill will, perhaps enough to produce a new recruit for the insurgency. It was also geographically inconvenient. Afghanistan is a horrendously complicated place, but to oversimplify, two-thirds of the country (roughly 27 of 34 provinces) has been nearly poppy-free and relatively stable for a few years. The remaining third -- in particular Helmand and Kandahar provinces -- is rife with both poppies and insurgents. Eradication in those areas has a minimal and temporary effect on the drug trade, at most pushing production to the next valley or district. And angering farmers where Taliban recruiters prowl seemed like a gift to the enemy. So the Obama administration swore off direct support of eradication, though the governors of some Afghan provinces continue to pursue their own eradication programs.

But swearing off eradication everywhere has come with its own unintended consequences. Two-thirds of Afghanistan has -- at considerable cost -- been largely rid of poppies already. Keeping them poppy-free is not only relatively easy at this point, but will maintain a degree of normalcy for more than half the country, placate Russia -- which, as one of the principal markets for Afghan drugs, is understandably irate at the prospect of a hands-off opium policy -- and cement the United States' local reputation for being opposed to drugs at a time when addiction is sweeping Afghan society. If America wants to win hearts and minds in a country whose addiction rate is among the highest in the world, there are worse things than being seen as resolutely anti-drug while reminding people that the Taliban profit from the illicit industry that has enslaved their family members. Refraining from quixotic and counterproductive measures in the south does not require sacrificing progress already made in the rest of the country.

"Everyone Would Be Better Off if Afghan Farmers Grew Something Else."

Not necessarily. Alternative development -- sometimes called "alternative livelihoods" -- is the kinder, gentler complement to eradication. Both target farmers, the thinking goes, but one plants crops and bulldozes roads, while the other bulldozes crops and plants resentment. Even if alternative development doesn't meaningfully reduce worldwide drug cultivation -- and it doesn't -- at least the do-gooders do no harm, right?

Wrong. The Taliban tax opium not because the Quran opposes intoxicants; they tax opium because it is taxable. In the lawless stretches of Afghanistan, the Taliban, local warlords, corrupt officials, and anyone else with enough guns all extort "protection" payments from almost any activity undertaken in their zone of control -- including alternative-development projects. The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that half the electricity produced by a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded $100 million upgrade to a hydropower plant in Helmand province is effectively sold by the Taliban. Even if one dismisses such egregious examples, back-of-the-envelope calculations of the overall impact are not encouraging. Multiply the commonly acknowledged 10 to 20 percent extortion "tax" rate levied by the Taliban by the total international budget for alternative development in Afghanistan, and you get a revenue stream well in excess of what the Taliban is thought to derive from the opium trade.

No one doubts that development needs to be a major part of the agenda in Afghanistan, but there is a strong case to be made for using these programs as a reward for stabilized provinces -- not a means of winning over hostile ones.

"The Afghan Drug Problem is Beyond Hope."

Not if we're patient. If solutions must be quick or decisive, then counternarcotics in Afghanistan is no solution. But that does not mean that nothing can or should be done. Small steps are better than no steps, and even in a land in such desperate circumstances, giving up makes for bad public relations.

There are practical options. The United States could fund drug treatment in Afghanistan, a country with a horrendous heroin problem, to reduce demand and earn support from the Afghan public. It could encourage consumer countries (including Iran and Russia) to step up drug treatment; that will shrink the revenues of Afghan traffickers. Focusing alternative-development efforts on more stable parts of the country, as a reward for taking steps toward normalcy, could further erode the threat of the Taliban gaining influence there. And removing Afghan officials corrupted by the drug trade from seats of power -- if it were possible -- would bolster confidence in the government.

It would be foolish to expect too much from these approaches. But the limitations of feasible drug-control activities in Afghanistan do not justify continuing to pursue policies that do more harm than good. Because the natural tendency of counternarcotics efforts is to help America's enemies, the country should pursue them as little as possible. This is a case where less really is more.

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