Think Again

Think Again: Al Qaeda

The world's most notorious terrorist organization was never quite what Americans thought it was -- and Osama bin Laden's death doesn't mean that it's down for the count.

"Osama bin Laden's Death Doesn't Matter."

Not so fast. It's hard to imagine the chapter of history that began in Lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, ending more conclusively than it did on May 1, when the body of the man who masterminded the worst terrorist attack in American history slipped off the deck of the USS Vinson into the Arabian Sea. But at the same time, Osama bin Laden's death and watery burial were strangely anticlimactic. By the time the team of Navy SEALs burst into his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden's terrorist organization and his place within it were far different from what they had been when he plotted the 9/11 attacks.

The attacks established the organization that bin Laden had founded in 1988 as the deadliest, most infamous terrorist group on the planet. But after 9/11 Al Qaeda did not, as was widely feared, succeed in launching another spectacular terrorist attack on the United States; bin Laden himself receded from view, and it began to look as if his organization's most fearsome days were behind it. In 2008, terrorism analyst Marc Sageman argued in Leaderless Jihad that "Al Qaeda Central in particular was neutralized operationally," its communications degraded "to the point that there was no meaningful command and control between the al Qaeda leadership and its followers."

But while al Qaeda's operational structure was damaged, it was still intact. In recent years, bin Laden had steadily rebuilt the battered organization in Pakistan, and he and his lieutenants always retained more control over its day-to-day operations than post-9/11 optimists believed.

The July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London, for example, were at first attributed to self-radicalized terrorists who taught themselves about jihad on the Internet. Al Qaeda's claim of credit was dismissed as the plea of an organization desperate for relevance trying to exploit a local event. But it later emerged that the cell's mastermind, Mohammad Siddique Khan, was trained in an al Qaeda camp and visited Pakistan at least two times before the attack. While in Pakistan, he and another locally trained jihadist recorded martyrdom videos -- a standard al Qaeda practice -- which were released by al Qaeda's media wing in the months after the bombing. Khan was also in direct contact with Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, one of bin Laden's most senior lieutenants, who reportedly "retasked" Khan and his associates with attacking the London Underground after meeting with them in Pakistan. Terrorism expert Peter Bergen described the bombings as "a classic al Qaeda plot."

By the time of bin Laden's death, al Qaeda was again training would-be terrorists in Pakistan, recruiting fighters for Iraq and other conflicts, and issuing propaganda on a mind-numbing basis. (Before 9/11, any al Qaeda statement was worth scrutinizing down to its last word. After the attacks, the group produced so many public statements that analysts struggled to keep up.) Because of his newfound celebrity and the loss of his Afghan safe haven, bin Laden's own operational role was necessarily more limited after 9/11 than it had been before. But the simple fact of his survival was of immense symbolic value for al Qaeda. After all, how could the world's biggest military, in the employ of its most powerful country, search for almost ten years and fail to find a single middle-aged man in waning health? To his supporters, only God's protection explained this mystery.

Bin Laden's death renders that protection considerably more debatable in the eyes of would-be jihadists. Less mystically, global jihad has lost its marquee name: Egyptian jihadist Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's probable successor, may be an effective operator, but has far less starpower than his former boss and is unlikely to inspire Muslims as effectively. No less importantly, al Qaeda will find it hard to recruit and fundraise without bin Laden to lead their cause. Rival groups may exploit al Qaeda's leadership weakness to attract the most motivated young men and most important donors, further weakening the group in the long term.

"Bin Laden Was a Homicidal Maniac."

Yes and no. Al Qaeda's No. 1 certainly departed this world with plenty of blood on his hands. There were the thousands of Americans killed on 9/11, of course, and thousands more Muslims killed throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia in the terrorist attacks and al Qaeda-affiliated insurgencies of the following decade. In 1998, bin Laden declared that killing "Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

This killer, however, often confounded those who met him. Many terrorist leaders foster a cult of personality -- Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's leader until his death in combat two years ago, was known for making his followers drink his bathwater. Bin Laden, by contrast, was by all accounts a humble and modest man. He lived an ascetic existence and assumed he would be killed -- or, as he saw it, achieve martyrdom -- long before he met his fate on Sunday. His mixture of idealism, bravery, and charisma inspired many young Muslims to take up arms and risk their lives for the ideas he championed. Perhaps the best measure of bin Laden's influence is the respect he enjoyed not only within jihadist circles, but outside of them. His status as a defiant anti-American hero extended beyond the Muslim world to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The al Qaeda leader's piety and humility, however, should not be mistaken for naivete. Bin Laden embraced the proverb that advised, "Trust in God -- but tie your camel tight." His public statements and directives to his organization revealed a man who was as much shrewd politician as ascetic martyr-in-waiting. Within the jihadist movement, bin Laden often pushed back against the tendency toward slaughter that manifested itself in Iraq and Algeria in the mid-1990s. In such countries, so-called taqfiris -- hardliners who saw Muslims who did not adhere to their extreme views as apostates -- made war on their own societies, making the killing of civilians as much a priority as striking U.S. or local regime targets. Bin Laden counseled against this tendency and tried to use his influence to focus fighters on the United States and its allies -- although he didn't let his personal preferences stop him from embracing genuine homicidal maniacs like Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who ignored bin Laden's advice and butchered far more Iraqi Shiites than Westerners.

"Al Qaeda's Business Is Terrorism."

Only in part. The al Qaeda brand is associated with mass deaths of innocent civilians for obvious reasons. The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 Americans; the organization's earlier efforts, targeting U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000, killed dozens more Americans and more than 200 Africans. Although al Qaeda hasn't pulled off a blockbuster against the United States since 9/11, the group has been linked to ambitious plots such as the 2006 plan to down as many as 10 airliners traveling from Britain to the United States and Canada, which could have killed thousands more. Under bin Laden's command, al Qaeda was the most lethal terrorist group the world has ever seen.

But al Qaeda is about much more than terrorism. It has supported, and at times seeded, insurgent movements throughout the Muslim world, and trained and funded many fighters who went to Afghanistan and Iraq. Less prominently, the movement also supported fighters who fought regimes in Algeria, Chechnya, Libya, Kashmir, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, and the Philippines. Not all of these fighters were loyal to bin Laden, but bin Laden was loyal to them; he wanted to make them more lethal so they could topple regimes he believed had turned away from Islam.

Almost all these struggles began with a local agenda. Sunni Iraqis rose against Americans in 2003 for local and nationalistic reasons, while Chechens fought Russians for independence. But over time, al Qaeda lent these local revolts a jihadist flavor, at first simply sending local recruits money and military know-how but eventually indoctrinating fighters and trying to convert their disparate causes into ones that meshed with the organization's global agenda. Al Qaeda, in short, tried to turn civil wars into cosmic ones.

The suffering exacted by al Qaeda's terrorism may be staggering, but in truth far more people have died in the civil wars the group has exacerbated. A precise accounting to sort out which deaths can be pinned on al Qaeda's tactics or ideas is impossible, but the group unquestionably poured fuel on many fires. In Iraq alone, al Qaeda-related terrorism played a major role in turning sectarian divides into a society-rending conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives and threatens Iraqi stability to this day.

Perhaps most importantly, al Qaeda is about propaganda and proselytization. The group's ideologues -- most notably Zawahiri -- have devoted tremendous attention to refuting what they see as the "errors" of other radical organizations, including groups like Hamas. Training manuals, political manifestos, and spiritual guides are all part of al Qaeda's output, much of which is on the web for easy dissemination and access. Indeed, violence for bin Laden was really just another form of propaganda, intended to inspire and educate: Striking American targets, he believed, would rally Muslims around the world and shake them from their lethargy.

It was in this ideological arena, more than anywhere else, that bin Laden was astoundingly successful. When al Qaeda was founded 23 years ago, Muslim jihadists had little love for the United States, but they were principally focused on villains closer to home: the Soviet Union, then still bogged down in Afghanistan, and the Arab world's own despots. Less than a quarter century later, bin Laden has profoundly reshaped perceptions among Muslim extremists, many of whom now embrace the late Saudi leader's identification of the United States as the number one enemy of Islam.

"Al Qaeda Unified the Jihadist Movement."

Only in name. Like his old nemesis George W. Bush, bin Laden saw himself as a uniter, not a divider. From the outset, he sought to bring jihadists of all stripes together under al Qaeda's umbrella. In the 1990s, that meant pushing the ever-bickering Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group, radical groups that focused on fighting the Egyptian government in the 1990s, to mend relations and work together. In Iraq in the following decade, it meant trying to unify the mélange of independently operating jihadist groups that had proliferated in the vacuum left by Saddam Hussein's ouster. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, al Qaeda has tried to foster affiliate movements, many of which now use variants on the brand name, such as Algeria's al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, neé the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. And for all his Sunni credentials, bin Laden was often a voice against sectarianism; while he had little love for the Shiites, he believed Muslims should sort out these problems after removing the United States and its allies from the Middle East, and cautioned his followers against being distracted by a lesser enemy.

But bin Laden was swimming against the tide. Groups like Hamas always rejected al Qaeda, and at times the two clashed bitterly (though Ismael Haniyeh, Hamas's leader in Gaza, took pains this week to condemn the killing of bin Laden, and praised the Saudi terrorist as an "Arab holy warrior"). Moreover, al Qaeda is just one group within the "salafi-jihadist" community -- individuals who embrace an extreme puritanical form of Sunni Islam and the use of political violence. Important groups like Hamas are far more pragmatic, and other salafi-jihadists differ on a variety of important subjects: who to strike next, the permissibility of killing non-combatants, and the proper relationship with less radical fellow Muslims. The brutal operations of al Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq brought these disagreements out into the open. In Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, prominent jihadists who once worked closely with bin Laden and his deputy Zawahiri denounced the organization for al Qaeda-linked atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere, blasting them for engaging in a foolish war, not jihad, and bringing pain and suffering to fellow Muslims.

This infighting is likely to grow worse now that bin Laden is dead. Bin Laden enjoyed a larger-than-life reputation that enabled him to transcend many local disputes. Zawahiri is a skilled operator, but he has taken the lead in denouncing groups like Hamas for its compromises and supposed deviations. His leadership may be characterized by less tolerance and more efforts to force other jihadist groups to toe al Qaeda's line.

"Al Qaeda Is Down To a Few Hundred Members."

We wish. U.S. intelligence officials have at times estimated the number of al Qaeda members in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the low hundreds. In 2006, Jack Cloonan, a retired senior FBI official, declared al Qaeda's numbers to be "minuscule," while National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter put the number at scarcely "more than 300" last year.

If these were the full dimensions of the problem, it would be far easier to solve than it is. It's true that relatively few jihadists swore personal loyalty to bin Laden or otherwise were part of the al Qaeda core, a terrorist elite composed of only the most dedicated and skilled individuals. These select few hundred, however, are only the innermost circle of a far larger organization.

Al Qaeda also has affiliates in Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Algeria, as well as groups it works closely with in Pakistan and other countries. These groups retain independent organization and their own local leaders. Some are involved in international terrorism, while others focus almost exclusively on local targets. Yet all share at least some of al Qaeda's global ambitions and cooperate with the Pakistan-based core of the organization. Many have attacked U.S. or other Western targets in their immediate area of operations and some, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have tried to bomb U.S. passenger and cargo jets. Beyond these affiliates, al Qaeda has also trained tens of thousands of fighters who are part of local groups who wage war on Russia, India, or U.S-backed regimes in the Muslim world, some of whom have also embraced international terrorism.

Finally, there are the civilian sympathizers. Some give money, while others turn a blind eye to al Qaeda proselytizing and recruitment or even assist it. Struggles against the United States in Iraq or the Indians in Kashmir are popular among many Muslims and give al Qaeda credibility -- even among those who reject its broader message or most ambitious aims. This broader social network means that an organization with mere hundreds of wholly dedicated adherents effectively has tens of thousands of members -- or millions, perhaps, if you count its most casual sympathizers who support attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Indian troops in Kashmir, or other popular causes that al Qaeda embraces.

Intelligent policy, however, must recognize al Qaeda's potential reach while resisting conflating limited sympathy with active membership. Those who were close to bin Laden must be killed or arrested, as few of them will turn away from violence. Those in the outer rings of the circle are usually less committed and might be persuaded or intimidated into rejecting al Qaeda -- or at least not taking up arms in the group's name.

"Killing Individual Al Qaeda Operatives Won't Kill the Network."

It will if you keep it up. In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked his military commanders, "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?" As terrorism grew in Iraq and elsewhere, the answer seemed a resounding no -- U.S. forces killed or captured so many al Qaeda No. 3s that it became a running joke. Indeed, the conventional wisdom in some circles  has become that killing terrorist leaders is eventually fruitless if the underlying political grievances that gave rise to violence are not solved.

If terrorists are killed or arrested on a large scale, however, the effect can be devastating. There will always be plenty of people who hate the United States and want to take up arms. But without bombmakers, passport forgers, and competent leaders, those angry young men will be little more than semi-dangerous bumblers, easy to disrupt and often more of a threat to themselves than to their enemies -- just ask Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the erstwhile "underwear bomber."

It's been done before, and not just to al Qaeda. Israel used an aggressive arrest and killing campaign in the Second Intifada to devastate Palestinian terrorist groups. At first, killing terrorist leaders seemed only to inflame hatred, and revenge attacks were common. But the terrorist groups lost their most skilled personnel, and the younger and less-seasoned replacements made foolish mistakes that set the groups back even more. Five years into the intifada, groups like Hamas sought a ceasefire. Their hatred of Israel remained as strong as ever, but they had lost too many leaders to function effectively.

The U.S. drone campaign against al Qaeda, begun under Bush and put on steroids under President Barack Obama, has achieved similar results, taking out dozens of al Qaeda figures, most of them in Pakistan. All were far less prominent than bin Laden, but their skills were in short supply. Al Qaeda found it hard to find seasoned and skilled new leaders -- and even when it could, it took time to integrate them into the organization. A subtler but even more important result of the drone war was the change it affected on al Qaeda's communications. Lieutenants have been forced to limit their communications to prevent U.S. eavesdropping that could lead to airstrikes; reduce their circle of associates to avoid spies; and avoid public exposure, all of which make them far less effective leaders. This, in turn, makes it harder -- though not impossible -- for them to pull off sophisticated attacks that require long-term planning.

All of this suggests that bin Laden's death may make the terrorist organization less dangerous and less relevant. Much will depend, however, on seizing the momentum of the moment. For now, the United States looks strong, and it can use this credibility to back the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring, a popular alternative to al Qaeda's bleak, bloody vision of the future of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, drone strikes and aggressive intelligence efforts are necessary to keep al Qaeda's base from recovering -- because if history is any guide, it will undoubtedly try.

AFP/Getty Images

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.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

"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.