Gaddafi: A Successful Leader Gone

This essay originally appeared in a different form in We Love This Book magazine. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith are professors of politics at New York University. Their latest book, The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics, will be published this month.

Demonized though he was, Muammar Gaddafi was a successful leader. He knew what it took to come to power and to stay on top. 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 7 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). U.S. 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.


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.


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 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 checkered past. He supported international terrorism, most notoriously providing implicit support for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie 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.


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 authorized 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.


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.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons