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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Qadaffi’s Defection Math: A Different View

Qadaffi is an experienced despot; otherwise he would not have held office for forty years. He knows how to calculate the best ways to stay in power.

By my count, Qadaffi can be defeated in four ways: 1) His inner circle overthrows him (and most likely kills him). 2) He voluntarily leaves the country. 3) He is defeated by an opposition army supported by foreign forces. 4) He is killed by a targeted missile (or even a stray one). Option 2 is hard to gauge. We do not know whether Gadaffi is a coward or, more likely, a pragmatic survivor. My own guess is that he will decide his best chance for survival is to stay in Libya and win. Once he leaves, his fate will be determined by others. Options 3-4 are a matter of chance and are unpredictable. Foreign powers, it appears, will not join forces with Libyan rebels, and the Anti-Gadaffi alliance does not seem to have the stomach for assassination by missile.

If history is a guide, the most likely option is number 1: The dictator is killed by his inner circle. Despots, contrary to the Hollywood scenes of an angry mob storming the palace, are killed by their closest associates (Caesar: Et tu, Brute?). The one execution of a dictator as the Soviet empire collapsed was Nicola Ceausescu, whose inner circle lined him and his wife up before a wall and shot them.

Qadaffi’s most immediate concern therefore is to prevent a winning coalition from forming within his inner circle.

Political scientist Bruce Beuno de Mesquita proposes a simple and common sense formula for the conditions under which a coalition unseats an incumbent dictator: The dictator’s inner circle ultimately decides whether the dictator stays or goes. A winning anti-incumbent coalition must offer the inner circle an expected reward for betrayal that exceeds that of the status quo. The term “expected” shows why the incumbent dictator has a huge advantage. Potential conspirators have two unknowns: Will the coup be successful? If successful, will the new dictator deliver the promised reward? If either of these has a low probability, the incumbent dictator stays in office.

This brings us to defector math. Qadaffi is well aware that the main threat comes from his inner circle, but he does not know who his most likely enemies are. His inner circle knows that they are already in extreme danger. He must be evaluating each of them to asses the chances of betrayal. Those who occupy “power positions,” such as head of the secret police, militia, or military are most dangerous. They actually have the power to unseat him. Economic or diplomatic officials pose a lesser threat. A Qadaffi would rather err on the side of eliminating a loyal follower than sparing a rival. Family or clan members are in the least danger. Blood runs thicker than water.

The optimal course of action for the inner circle is for them to defect as soon as possible. But their defection actually serves the interest of the dictator. Defecting potential rivals remove themselves from the inner circle and can no longer organize or be a part of a coalition to unseat him. Another benefit is that the inner circle becomes a smaller tight-knit group of clear loyalists.


The Western press depicts defections as a sign that Qadaffi’s hold on power is weakening. According to defector math, however, defections strengthen the dictator. In a power struggle like this, it is not particularly relevant to Qadaffi whether Western governments think he is weakening or not. What matters most to him is what is going on inside his inner circle.


We have historical examples that show that defections do not weaken a dictator’s hold on power. Fidel Castro allowed massive defections to remove potential trouble makers from his island. Saddam Hussein’s regime suffered many defections, but none of them played a decisive role in unseating him. Belarus dictator Lukashenko has actively encouraged regime opponents to defect, and he remains in power.

Qadaffi’s likely reaction to each defector is: “Good by and good riddance. I’ll catch up with you later.”

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