Demonised though he was, Muammar Gaddafi was a successful leader. He knew what it took to come to power and to stay on top. Last Thursday (September 1st) would have been a celebration of his 42nd year in power. A great humanitarian who cared for his people he was not, but measured by the yardstick that leaders care most about – staying in power – he has few equals.
Successful politics is about attaining and retaining power. Everything else is window dressing. None of the democratic western leaders who aligned themselves with the Libyan rebels can expect to achieve Gaddafi's leadership success. The average democratic leader spends only about three and a half years in office. Gaddafi outlasted seven US Presidents.
To an outsider, his idiosyncrasies, bizarre clothes, tented accommodations, voluptuous Ukrainian nurses, reliance on a coterie of all female virgin bodyguards and pan-Arab dreams often appear crazy (and certainly self-indulgent). US President Ronald Reagan referred to him as “the mad dog of the Middle East”. Others have called him “evil” and “public enemy number one".
To understand why Libya did not become a bastion of democracy and why it did not develop economically and why it won't after he is gone, we need to understand the basics of Gaddafi's political power. Politics is often portrayed in terms of complex philosophical principles and beliefs but in truth much of it can be explained by a few simple measures. Leaders need supporters and leaders need to reward them for their support. How leaders reward their backers and whether they succeed in keeping their loyalty depends in large part on how many supporters a leader needs and how large the pool of potential replacements for those supporters is. These numbers vary enormously between political systems. And it is this variation that accounts for virtually all the differences between regimes, from taxing and spending policies to leader survival and the quality of life for the average citizen.
The most autocratic leaders, such as Gaddafi, rely upon the support of a mere few thousand essential backers to ensure that the guns are trained on everyone else. Suppressing the people is unpleasant work, but it is lavishly rewarded. And perhaps just as importantly, there are plenty of willing volunteers who prefer to be a crony than to be one of the suppressed. As long as his supporters believed Gaddafi would continue to pay them, they remained loyal. Gaddafi survived early attempts to oust him and established his ability to pay supporters. He and his family took control of virtually all aspects of the Libyan economy. He renegotiated agreements with oil companies to make them pay more. Oil wealth was a blessing for Gaddafi, but oil is a curse to the Libyan people. It gave him the resources to ensure that his supporters loyally suppressed the masses. Gaddafi did not even need to provide basic essentials (although he sometimes did so out of noblesse oblige) to help the people work. His wealth – he treated state resources as his own – flowed out of the ground, not out of taxing productive enterprise.
Democrats have a far harder time of it. They often need the support of millions of voters to retain office. Even Libya's fantastic oil wealth is not sufficient to buy the loyalty of so many. This is why democrats spend so much of their time and effort on effective public policy and spend proportionately less on rewarding cronies. It is the most efficient way to “buy” the political loyalty of so many. But it also makes democratic leaders vulnerable because, if rivals propose better policies, their supporters are liable to defect. So despite providing a high standard of living for their citizens, democrats' tenures are short.
The first rule of politics is to be beholden to as few people as possible. This is why democrats love to gerrymander districts and why they create institutions such as the US' Electoral College. Winning a majority of the Electoral College requires winning just over half the votes in a relatively small subset of states and this can easily be done with 25% of the vote, substantially less than the 50% that would be needed in a direct two-party presidential electoral system. Of course, candidates often get additional votes, but they don't need them. The fewer the people a politician needs support from, the easier it becomes for them to survive in office. When they can get away with it, autocrats like to strip away all vestiges of inclusive government and such purges can be bloody. Gaddafi is a product of his political environment. Dependent upon a small coalition, he took Libya's wealth and paid cronies to sustain him: terrible for the people, but great for him.
If Gaddafi made a mistake, it was, sad to say, that he was too lenient. Libya has an atrocious record on human rights and political freedoms. Its press is among the world's least free. However, according to Reporters Without Frontiers, Tunisia's regime was every bit as repressive and Libya's has been improving over recent years. Further, Libyans substantially out-perform their Arab neighbors on the UNDP human development and education indicators. Conditions in Libya are dreadful, but not as awful as they might have been. Contemporary leaders in Tunisia and Egypt were constrained to offer at least modest liberties to their people because those states relied on tourism and commerce to fill government coffers. Gaddafi had no such need to encourage the people to work. Granting them minimal freedoms was his decision and his undoing as it gave the people the opportunity to mass and rebel.
Without doubt Gaddafi would have annihilated the rebels if NATO had not intervened. Gaddafi can blame western intervention on his own chequered past. He supported international terrorism, most notoriously providing implicit support for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, orchestrating the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub and the assassination of Libyan dissidents worldwide. Although Libya failed to build nuclear weapons, Gaddafi stockpiled chemical weapons.
On policy dimensions, Gaddafi consistently maintained pro-Islamic, anti-western stances and backed some of the world's most unsavoury characters, including Liberia's Charles Taylor (currently on trial in the Hague) and Central African Republic president Jean-Bedel Bokassa (an alleged cannibal who is rumoured to have served the flesh of a political opponent to a French minister at a State banquet). After decades of being regarded as a pariah by the west, Gaddafi made moves to rehabilitate himself internationally. Libya paid compensation to victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Gaddafi also began to cooperate with western governments against al-Qaeda and, just days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he allowed western agencies to inspect his weapons of mass destruction.
He might have besmirched his international standing and been reviled by a majority of Libyans, but his supporters stood by him. They knew he knew where the money was and they knew he would continue to pay them. Even with Tripoli fallen, many supporters continue to rally to his cause. Gaddafi established his credentials to deliver for his supporters and they sustained him in power; a cosy symbiosis that supporters know they are extremely unlikely to be a part of under the new rebel regime.
What next for Libya?
What has been missed in the drive to remove Gaddafi is what will replace him. Western policy makers have viewed Gaddafi's demise through rose-tinted glasses. Undoubtedly he has been a thorn in their side but the events unfolding in Libya don't conform to alleged humanitarian intervention goals. The UN authorised NATO military intervention to protect civilians. Presumably the hope was that, backed by NATO airpower, the rebels would score a few quick victories and Gaddafi's support would collapse. Instead the conflict has dragged on for six months, inflicted large civilian casualties and financially burdened cash-strapped European nations. Worse, NATO will not have prevented civilian persecution. True, it will be a different group of people who suffer, but the UN mandate was to prevent deaths, not to shift their incidence. Already stories are emerging of widespread human rights abuses by rebel forces.
The carnage is likely to intensify as rival rebel leaders jockey for position. The talk has been of democracy, but all revolutionaries claim to fight for freedom and liberty. Seizing power requires controlling the guns and securing the revenue stream with which to buy loyalty. Monopolising weapons will be a bloody business. Those rebel factions that face exclusion from power will prove reluctant to hand over weapons that are likely to be used subsequently to oppress them. The stakes for coming to power are huge. With tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets to be claimed, potential leaders can buy a lot of loyalty. The competition to seize power is likely to be brutal.
Things are likely to get even bloodier when those who seek power start to cull their former comrades in arms and anyone else perceived as disloyal, as a potential rival or simply surplus to requirements (remember, leaders always want to reduce their number of supporters). As Gaddafi showed us for nearly 42 years, when there is plentiful money to buy loyalty, a few can be relied upon to keep the many down. Leniency got Gaddafi into trouble; it is a mistake his successor is unlikely to make. Except perhaps for the absence of flamboyant clothing, the average Libyan can expect little beneficial change.
Gaddafi is not a good man, but he was a successful leader and he might yet be missed.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith are professors of politics at New York University. Their latest book, The Dictator's Handbook, will be published by Public Affairs Press in October.
Picture credit: Mark III Photonics.