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The Dictator's Survival Guide

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
August 22, 2011
Foreign Policy


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."

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