Somewhere, perhaps in Tripoli, his tribal home of Sirte, or perhaps a secret submarine headed for Caracas, Muammar al-Qaddafi sits amid an ever-shrinking cadre of loyalists, wondering how it all went wrong. He had implemented all of the time-tested tactics of coup-proofing: exploiting familial, ethnic, and religious ties, creating overlapping security forces that monitored each other, and showering money on his potential opponents. He disemboweled his own army so that it could not hurt him and then hired mercenaries and thugs to brutally put down his rebellious people. He took to the airwaves and streets, taunting his opponents, blaming outside influence, and promising swift retribution. For awhile, it seemed that stalemate was still a viable possibility. And yet on the night of Aug. 21, he was reduced to issuing impotent, rambling audio messages as his former subjects closed in around him.
We know now that it has all gone horribly wrong for Africa's longest-serving dictator. But what, exactly, went wrong?
As Qaddafi stews, he would do well to identify March 17 as the date when his grip on power began to deteriorate. That's when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which provided the legal basis for the NATO-led intervention in Libya. Without the 7,505 strike sorties that NATO and its allies flew during the conflict, the images of joyous Libyans retaking the capital of Tripoli on Aug. 22 would never have been possible.
For nervous dictators across the world watching events unfold in Libya, the primary lesson should therefore be to do everything possible to avoid an external military intervention. Of course, this is easier said than done: Western powers have varied their reactions and responses toward brutal regimes throughout the Arab Spring. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said as much shortly after the beginning of the Libya intervention, when he announced, "We don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent."
While dictators can't eliminate the possibility of foreign military intervention, they can certainly minimize its likelihood. To do so, self-interested autocrats should immediately integrate these seven tactics into their dictator survival guide.
Don't announce your plans. This may be tough, but you're better served keeping your mouth shut. This may have been Qaddafi's most serious mistake: On March 17, even as talks continued at the United Nations about the proper response to events in Libya, he appeared on state television to address the "sons of Benghazi." In a rambling, 3,000-word, 20-minute speech, the Libyan dictator said that his forces would reach Benghazi that night. "We will find you in your closets," he said to the rebels, vowing to show "no mercy or clemency" for foreign fighters, Islamists, or traitors.
Although some U.S. officials continue to misquote Qaddafi's remarks by saying that he promised to hunt down civilian protesters "like rats," the speech catalyzed Barack Obama's administration to support a limited military intervention into the civil war. As Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg noted in a prepared statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "we had little choice but to take him at his word."
So, keep your plans under wraps. This is a lesson that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has learned well. Faced with escalating international pressure, the dictator in Damascus gave an inoffensive, if rather dull, interview to Syrian state television on Aug. 21 that touted his regime's promised reforms. Rather than threatening to kill traitors to the regime, he blandly noted that "there are security situations that require the interference of security institutions." Who could object to whatever that means?
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