Republicans sometimes ask: “What would Reagan do? Christians ask: “What would Christ have done in this situation.” Dictators like Qadaffi, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Il Sung could ask the same question of their patron saint: Josif Stalin. Stalin wrote the playbook for dictators – how to grab and hold onto power. In actuality, unconstrained dictators, of the Stalin type like Qadaffi, do not need his advice. They became brutal dictators by being the best specialists in political terror. They intuitively understand what Stalin would have advised.
Qadaffi’s “victory within 48 hours” appears to have been snatched away at the last minute by the remarkable U.N resolution to establish a no fly zone and apply necessary force to save civilians. Qadaffi’s road to survival has unexpectedly become rockier. What would we expect the Qadaffi/Stalin dictator to do next?
First, like Stalin, Qadaffi would be most frightened of the threat of external force. Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact at great cost to head off Hitler’s troops. Qadaffi, likewise, will do anything necessary to head off any foreign intervention. He will promise to abide by a cease fire. He will assure the outside world that he values civilian life, and will do everything necessary to protect his people “who love him” He will continue to hold territory his loyalists occupy and will probe only at the margins – never giving outside forces a reason to act.
Second, like Stalin, Qadaffi understands that the external threat will hearten his domestic enemies, which he now understands are everywhere. Any increase in the external threat must be countered by extreme political repression in territories he holds, especially Tripoli. Like Stalin, he understands that the ensuing bloodbath must be kept as quiet as possible. Western journalists must be kept away at any cost, even if it means killing them. Arrests will take place at night. Neighbors know that if they say anything, they are next.
Third, like Stalin, Qadaffi will upgrade his propaganda efforts, what Stalin called "mobilization." In this case, he lacks Stalin’s advantages of gullible Western intellectuals and journalists who sympathize with his cause of “building socialism.” Qadaffi, who has few remaining friends, will be hard pressed to find his NYT’s Walter Duranty or Guardian reporters to deny the Ukrainian famine or vouch for the veracity of his Moscow Show Trials. Qadaffi does have cash; maybe he can find some mouthpieces who can make his case credibly and make a difference.
Fourth, like Stalin, Qadaffi will shorten the leash on his state security apparatus. His state security officers will receive outrageous benefits and will be given to understand the price of disloyalty. The control of state and security will devolve to his immediate family and most trusted loyalists.
Will Qadaffi survive by employing these tactics? Unless the Western powers are willing to bomb Qadaffi troops that are, by all intents and purposes scrupulously observing a case fire, he has a good chance.