Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Myth of the Mad Dictator

William Smith

AFP/Getty Images
After sixteen months of popular revolt, with its grip on power weakening by the day, the Syrian government stands accused not only of carrying out barbaric atrocities against its own people, but also of committing a series of strategic blunders that are hastening its demise. Syria’s downing of a Turkish fighter jet last month, and its recent threats to use chemical weapons in the event of foreign intervention, were widely viewed as significant ‘own-goals’ that have have served only to increase the regime’s international isolation. With the situation on the ground spiralling out of control, the Saudi news outlet al-Arabiyya has decried the “madness and hysteria” of the embattled regime, with prominent columnist Amir Taheri suggesting that president Bashar al-Asad himself is “losing contact with reality and becoming a “prisoner in a cobweb of fantasies”. 

It is an argument that has been made often enough. Throughout the Syrian uprising, Western commentators have tended to view the country’s spiralling violence, and the gradual evisceration of the regime, as the direct result of Asad’s blunders. The detention and torture of a group of children in the town of Der’aa last March transformed a hitherto peaceful call for reform into a full-scale revolt, and the government’s uncompromising pursuit of a ‘security option’ has spawned an increasingly violent insurrection. Meanwhile, the regime’s willingness to shell densely populated civilian areas in full view of the world’s media, combined with its shrill denunciations of a ‘foreign conspiracy’, have simply reinforced its image as a mad and hysterical actor. As The Economist noted last November, it is actions such as these that suggest the Syrian leader is “intent on self-destruction”. 

Clearly the regime has made serious tactical mistakes. But how accurate is the portrayal of Asad as madman? The irrational, unstable despot has become something of an archetype in our understanding of autocratic regimes. From Shakespeare’s Richard II to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the narrative of the deposed leader is of a delusional despot whose downfall is hastened by his own egoism and hubris. The example of the former Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi is a case in point. Alternately caricatured in the West as a comic buffoon and a mad dog, Gaddafi was seen by many to pave the way for his own deposition through forty years of megalomania. Yet his grandiloquent and eccentric persona hid a more calculating and rational mind. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described the former dictator as “delusional” and “disconnected” from reality, but the story of the former army cadet’s rise to power and his forty year rule tell a quite different story.

It is perhaps much easier to think of a dictator who was overseen the deaths of thousands of his own people as a madman, than to countenance the idea that he might be behaving as a rational actor. But perhaps leaders such as Asad - like Gaddafi and others before him - are not only resolutely sane, but are cultivating and exploiting a reputation for madness as a tactic against their opponents. Machiavelli observed that it is “wise to sometimes pretend to be crazy”, and it is a ploy that has been used to good effect by more modern statesmen. Former US president Richard Nixon drew on his ‘madman theory’ as a means to scare his adversaries, and induce them to back down. In negotiations with their North Korean counterparts, US officials would intimate that Nixon was an unstable leader, prone to taking irrational decisions and resorting to disproportionate violence. As Avidit Acharya and Edoardo Grillo explain, incumbent elites may be incentivised to appear irrational, willing to pursue extreme levels of violence as a means of deterring potential opponents from engaging in armed opposition. The tactic can be effective both domestically and internationally. Just as domestic opponents may reason that the costs of armed conflict are too high, so too can foreign states be convinced that a military intervention against a violent and unstable regime is too dangerous. Bashar al-Asad’s own ‘madman theory’ was clearly attested to by his extraordinary use of doublespeak in declaring that only “crazy” leaders kill their own people.

In deploying his own ‘madman theory’, Bashar al-Asad can draw on a number of successful precedents for using extreme violence to quell domestic unrest. His own father, Hafez al-Asad, was widely seen as one of the shrewdest and most calculating figures in modern Middle Eastern politics, but he was also one of the most brutal. His merciless response to an armed uprising in the 1980s is perhaps the best evidence to Bashar that state violence can indeed be a succesful tactic. The sheer brutality of the regime’s response, and its willingness to kill thousands of people during its siege of Hama, served as an effective deterrent to further armed insurgency, and convinced the opposition Muslim Brotherhood to renounce violence and seek change via peaceful means. More recently, Asad can point to the example of Russia in Chechnya, and the Iran’s suppression of the 2009 ‘Green Revolution’. It is no surprise that the Syrian regime’s principal backers throughout the recent uprising have been Vladmir Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei. 

By contrast, Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s decision to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programme and pursue detente with the West during the 2000s serves as a cautionary tale to Asad of the dangers of relinquishing one’s reputation as a dangerous despot. In the aftermath of the Anglo-American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Libyan leader calculated that his regime’s survival was better served by an allegiance with the US and its allies, than by a coercive deterrent to invasion. In fact, his decision had the opposite effect, and made him more vulnerable to being overthrown. By caving to Western pressure and ridding himself of his chemical arsenal, Gaddafi lost both the physical means to stave off and overthrow, and his reputation as a dangerous and irrational actor, willing to resort to extreme violence to stay in power. Last year, Gaddafi may well have regretted his decision.

Having studied the two contrasting fates of his father and Muammar al-Gaddafi, Bashar al-Asad has evidently concluded that his only chance of survival rests in pursuing a security response. Unfortunatlely for him, his tactics have not met with the same success as his father’s did thirty years ago. Bolstered by modern media communications, outside logistical support and the inspiration of the Libyan civil war, Syria’s rebels have not been cowed into submission, but rather galvanised by each successive wave of government violence. Internationally, however, the Syrian regime has had more success, with Western states so far eschewing direct intervention in the conflict on the grounds that Syria is ‘not Libya’. In this regard, the regime’s thinly veiled threat to use chemical weapons in the event of a foreign attack acts as a significant deterrent among growing reports of indirect intervention in the country on the part of Western intelligence agencies.

But regardless of whether or not it ultimately succeeds, Asad’s tactics in response to the Syrian uprising can hardly be seen as madness. It is often argued that Asad could have avoided widespread, popular revolt if he had only followed through with his earlier promises of reform. Yet it seems that Asad understood the limits of reforming Syria’s deeply embedded structures of authoritarianism far better than optimistic foreign commentators. Asad will know that meaningful political reform, as opposed to the empty slogans he has made up until now, is impossible, almost by definition. broadening its social pact, the regime would undermine the narrow, praetorian support base that underpins its rule. As Clement Henry and Robert Springborg observed long before the current uprising began, the Syrian regime has always relied almost exclusively on coercion to remain in power, and has since its inception existed in a “potential state of war” with the society it rules. Now Asad has his war, and he will see it through to the end, as it is his only viable option to remain in power.

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