As the Western powers dither and deliberate, Gaddafi has won. He will stay in power even if we establish no-fly zones or impose sanctions with sharp teeth. Short of actual invasion, Gaddafi will stay in power and will likely pass his power on to his sons when he dies. The Western press will continue to hope as a civil war continues, but its outcome is preordained.
There is a prominent historical pattern which explains why Gaddafi has won. There are virtually no cases of unconstrained dictators being overthrown. An unconstrained dictator is a Stalin, a Kim Il Sung, a Saddam, and a Gaddafi who is willing to take any measure, no matter how brutal or repulsive, to stay in power.
The state security organizations of unconstrained dictators reach even down into neighborhoods and report directly to them; prison or worse is the price even modest dissidents pay; they shoot first, not particularly worrying whether their victim is a threat or not. They make the price of resistance of any kind so high that only a brave few are willing to take the risk. Any potential rival is a dead man.
These brutal measures have served unconstrained dictators well. Stalin in his three decades of rule faced not a single assassination attempt. (There were two attempts on Lenin’s life in the early days of Bolshevik power. He had not yet had time to build his state security network). Father and son, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, ruled North Korea for a half century despite incredible economic failure and deprivation of their people too downtrodden to resist.
The recent events in the Middle East have taught us a new and bitter lesson: Even mass popular uprisings are not enough to topple an unconstrained dictator. We had hoped that popular uprisings would eventually topple the Iranian mullahs, Syria’s Assad, and Kim Il Sung. The Libyan experience proves that they can survive almost an entire nation rising up against them. They do so by killing as many people as necessary and by placing a high price on any form of resistance.
Popular uprisings are, however, sufficient to topple constrained dictators, as Mubarak’s experience in Egypt shows. Earlier the constrained Shah fell to a popular uprising and even the East German dictatorship was unwilling to use force against demonstrators in Leipzig.
The few cases of overthrow of unconstrained dictator take the form of internal coups and invasions. The Romanian dictator Ceausescu was shot dead by his inner circle after being booed by a crowd. Beria, Stalin’s head of state security, was executed by his Kremlin colleagues, when he tried to succeed the deceased Stalin. Hitler committed suicide before Soviet troops reached his bunker.
What signal does past and current history send to constrained dictators? What message does it send to Chavez in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua, Hamas in Lebanon, or Assad in Syria? The message is that only the most vicious and brutal dictators survive. There is no payoff from restraint. “Reforms” will do them no good and are to the contrary quite dangerous. They will heed Machiavelli’s advice that the “prince must learn to be less good..
A Libyan civil war will likely follow the pattern of the Russian civil war. In this civil war, there were almost a half million executions, as the Red Army and the Cheka carried out Lenin’s Red Terror. The White forces were divided and more timid (except the Cossacks, who matched the Reds in brutality). The interventionist forces used only half measures and pulled out with their tales between their legs. Tribal enmity will likely keep a Libyan war going for a while but the outcome is not in question.
If history shows that palace coups are the most likely way to topple an unconstrained dictator, should US policy aim at promoting an insider conspiracy among Gaddafi's lieutenants? I am sure that Gaddafi has organized his state security to prevent just that. The odds of an outsider successfully organizing a palace coup are about zero. Even if a palace coup worked, the result would likely be a new leader slightly less bad than Gaddafi.