The Fall of Tripoli… almost

22 August 2011


The continuum of contemporary dictatorship comprises a spectrum ranging from absurdity to brutality. At the absurd end of the continuum we might place the Turkmenbashi, Saparmurat Niyazov, while at the brutal end of the spectrum we have plenty of candidates to consider. Even the most brutal dictators are absurd in the their own way, which is something Charlie Chaplin brought out in his portrait of Hitler in The Great Dictator.

Gaddafi cultivated his absurd aura with his all female bodyguard.

Saddam Hussain, I think, fell a little bit to the brutal side of the middle of this continuum, while Gaddafi (however you choose to spell his name, and there are many ways), falls distinctly on the absurd side of the spectrum. Still, Gaddafi’s absurdity did not come without the almost thoughtless brutality common to all contemporary dictatorial regimes. It is almost if they practice repression because they can’t imagine anything else.

Gaddafi's tent was another essential constituent of his absurdity.

But the era of Gaddafi’s absurb/brutal regime is fast drawing to a close. The Libyan rebels moved deep into Tripoli today, and although the whole city was not taken, and Gaddafi himself is still at large, at this point it ought to be obvious to even the most impatient politician or the most cynical journalist — of which instances of each were only last month getting restive about the failure of the uprising against Gaddafi to play out according to a Hollywood timetable — that the rebels are in this to win it.

One of the ways in which dictators demonstrate that they lie on the absurd end of the spectrum instead of on the brutal end of the spectrum, is their inability to resist grandstanding on television. Of course, all the dictators do their grandstanding, and all of these arrange absurd pro-government rallies, but the more deluded dictators (like Gaddafi) earnestly appear in front of television cameras to assure the world’s press corps that their people love them.

I don’t think that you’ll see much of Bashar al-Assad claiming the love of his people; rather, Assad positions himself as the ultimate law-and-order autocrat. This demonstrates that Assad lies on the brutal end of the spectrum, though he is not nearly as brutal as his father.

Assad’s calculus of power is entirely rational, and the question of whether or not he can last in power is simply whether the crowds of protesters in Syria can overwhelm the armed forces that he is employing to put down the protests. This is a close run thing; no one can say how long the protesters can retain their momentum, and no one can say how long Assad’s Alawite officer corps can can keep the loyalty of a somewhat more diverse army. The protesters might give up and go home; the army might switch sides and take the part of the protesters. Only time will tell.

In Gaddafi’s Absurdistan, his people really do love him, and those who oppose him are thugs and armed gangs. He will no doubt go to his grave believing himself to be betrayed or conspired against or otherwise wronged by the people he “served” and who he believed loved him. This is not a rational calculation, and Gaddafi’s irrationalism has allowed the country to slip from his grasp bit by bit until the momentum was unambiguously on the side of the rebels.

Diplomats would do well to take the measure of the world’s dictators to judge whether they lie on the absurd end of the spectrum or the brutal end of the spectrum. The absurdist dictators are, relatively speaking, soft targets. If we look at the world diplomatic map like a battlefield, and we want to employ infiltration tactics (since, reversing the famous Clausewitz aphorism, politics is the pursuit of war by other means) in diplomacy, we would first seek the end of the absurd dictators, and leave the brutal dictators to be “mopped up” after they are surrounded and isolated.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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