UPGRADE As the world’s old-fashioned tyrants have been toppled by revolutions, assassinated, killed in coups or packed off into exile, Michael Binyon looks at their past, their present, and sees if they stand a chance at a future.
The late Colonel Gaddafi, in office for almost 42 years, was the world’s longest-serving dictator. What an anachronism he had become! When he seized power in 1969, he did so in the way favoured by most third world leaders, a military coup, joining dozens of other self-appointed despots with little interest in the trappings of democracy.
Today, hardly any of these old-fashioned tyrants remain. One-by-one they have been swept away – toppled by revolutions, assassinated, killed in coups or packed off into exile. Their names – Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu, Pol Pot, Erich Honecker, ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, Fidel Castro, Mengistu Haile Mariam – were the stuff of Cold War rivalries and Third World brutalities. They survived with the tacit protection of one or other superpower, and by terrorising their cowed nations. They cast a long shadow over their continents, and made a mockery of the United Nations, cynically invoking its principles to keep control of their own killing fields.
Only a few names are still around from the past. Too distant or too entrenched to be threatened by the new liberal interventionism, they are still clinging to power amid the debris of their ruined economies: Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Kim Jong Il in North Korea, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Than Shwe, head of the shadowy Burmese junta. But, unlike the dictators of yesteryear, they do not have to be accommodated by the rest of the world. They are pariahs, targeted by international sanctions, denied visas to travel and shunned by tourists and investors.
In the past, despots could not be ignored. Many were key leaders of the communist bloc. Their actions affected their neighbours. Honecker, the man who built the Berlin Wall, could raise East-West tensions at any time by creating an incident in Berlin. Ceausescu, even while repressing his downtrodden people, made himself useful to the West by denying Soviet forces a foothold in Romania. Castro came closer than any dictator to starting a nuclear war with his invitation to Moscow to station missiles in Cuba.
Other dictators, as a result of their aggression, had to be appeased or opposed. Saddam Hussein posed as a champion of Western interests when he invaded neighbouring Iran, but then forced the West into a costly war when he invaded Kuwait. The Argentinian junta, engaged in the ‘dirty war’ to ‘disappear’ its opponents, launched the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 to galvanise nationalist support at home. Britain was forced to respond – first with lengthy and fruitless attempts to find a diplomatic compromise, and then, more daringly, with a naval task force.
Shamefully, the rest of the world has left some despots in peace to pursue their own barbarities. The most notorious killer of modern times, Pol Pot, seized power in Cambodia with his Khmer Rouge in 1975, just at a time when an exhausted America, having finally extricated itself from the costly Vietnam war, had neither the stomach for nor any interest in plunging back into south-east Asia. It was not until the Vietnamese communist government finally turned on its neighbour and invaded in 1978 that Pol Pol fled and the murders stopped, and even then, the West denounced the Vietnamese as aggressors, not liberators.
Idi Amin’s megalomania also sought victims among his own people. His expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, most of whom held British passports, created an international crisis. Britain, in no position to protect them at home, agreed to accept them as refugees. That meant tense and lengthy dealings with a dictator already showing signs of paranoia. Amin’s depredations quickly brought Uganda to its knees, but there was no international consensus on what to do about him, and no change in the prevailing UN principle that interference in a member state’s internal affairs was prohibited. It was not until Tanzania, ignoring tut-tutting from the UN, invaded to throw out Amin that Uganda was freed of its burly brutal buffoon.
Similarly, Mengistu was left alone in Ethiopia, largely with Soviet protection, to launch a ‘Red Terror,’ specifically modelled on Stalin’s purges. It was only during the great famine of 1984 that the outside world, prompted by angry aid agencies, was forced to try to deal with a man intent on letting his people
starve. The overthrow of dictators, however welcome, can often be the cause of lasting instability. Having robbed and ravaged their countries, they leave behind a vacuum. The 1997 overthrow of President Mobutu, a kleptomaniac who survived in Zaire thanks largely to Western protection, led to a prolonged civil war that sucked in most of the country’s neighbours, killed an estimated 5.4 million people and has left a legacy of continuing warfare and massacres in eastern Congo.
It took Romania years to recover from Ceausescu. Albania also experienced civil war, widespread criminality and economic chaos after the 50-year dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and his communist successor was ended. And Iraq has seen such violence and instability that it has become a lesson to Libya and the rest of the world in how not to deal with the aftermath of dictatorship.
Why are despots less likely and less dangerous today? Partly this is because the end of the Cold War also ended the dictum that ‘our son-of-a-bitch’, as America termed Somoza in Nicaragua, does not need to be supported for fear he will switch sides.
Military regimes, once almost universal in Latin America, are no longer indulged. Partly this is because the UN has adopted more robust policies in deeming internal repression a threat to regional peace and stability. And partly it is because the world now knows more about the scale of barbarism that can occur: after Rwanda, no genocidal regime can knowingly be left to inflict its horrors.
Communications also bring down dictators more swiftly nowadays. The blogging, internet and tweeting revolution is eating away at long-lasting despots in the Middle East and elsewhere. They have failed yet to remove the hardliners in Tehran, but even there, President Ahmadinejad cannot nowadays establish a personal dictatorship. Only in totally isolated and paranoid states such as North Korea has time stood still.
Gaddafi came to power when all these familiar names were the current bogeymen of international politics. He lasted almost 42 years, second only in modern times to Hoxha’s 44 years. His overthrow and death brings an end to the personality cult of the leader who holds sole and absolute power. Today’s tyrants – in Burma, Zimbabwe, Syria or Iran –need the support of parties, clans and armies to survive. International politics in a more democratic age may be more complicated. But it may, with luck, be less brutal.