• S. Peou

Why Dictators Are Dumb but Can Still Outsmart Others

When I say that dictators are dumb, I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t know how to dictate the way their citizens live or society function. Dictators can be very smart people with high IQ scores. But they tend to become dumb overtime because of their tendency to err on the side of relying on too much force rather than too little of it and just don’t know when to stop or how to call it quits.

We may need to give dictators a lot of credit for behaving the way do and for holding to power when when no one else is willing or able to do the same. World history is filled with dictators, the first of whom came to power in Rome around 510 B.C. Until Julius Caesar became dictator for life, however, most dictators left office when their tasks given to them during emergencies were completed.

Oftentimes, dictators’ reigns of terror end tragically. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. Napoleon Bonaparte of France has been considered by historians to be the first modern dictator. He enjoyed popularity because he did some good things for his country, such as balancing the budget, reforming state institutions, and writing the Civil Code that laid the foundation of France’s current civil law. Sadly, he didn’t seem to know when to stop or call its quits. In 1804, he crowned himself emperor, established a network of spies to tighten his control over the government and the press, and pursued his political ambition by invading other countries across Europe. He couldn’t be stopped until Great Britain, Prussia, Spain and Portugal surrounded his empire and when his generals rebelled against him. He was forced to give up his throne and was exiled for good in 1815, after a brief return to power.

More recent dictators also didn’t know when to call it quits until they were removed from power by force or execution. Adolf Hitler started WWII, was defeated by the Allied Powers and then committed suicide. His ally, Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was shot to death and stoned. Pol Pot of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror was known as Brother Number One but ended up as Brother Number Zero. His regime kept slaughtering innocent people and many of his party’s members, but was then driven out of power and eventually arrested by those who served under him. His life was put to an end. Saddam Hussein of Iraq was executed after he had been found in a muddy foxhole. More can be said about Gadhafi of Libya whose fate was sealed after NATO destroyed his armed loyalists.

Health-related death can be another cause of dictators’ demise. The first two Soviet dictators, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, died after strokes. Mao Zedong of China died at age of 82, after a heart attack more severe than the previous ones. Fidel Castro of Cuba was replaced by his younger brother because of his worsening health. Dictators don't seem to enjoy good health - and a happy life!

With that said, it is not easy to get rid of dictators because they don’t know when to stop until their defeat or death stops their reign of terror. This fact further suggests that they are usually dumb because they think they have no choice but to fight to the death because of their insecurity, if not insanity. Dictators usually come to power amidst chaos and turmoil or violence and war, rely on terror and intimidation to maintain their power bases, instead of building democratic and rule-of-law institutions to enhance their legitimacy. Sadly, they live in fear of subversion, retribution, and assassination.

This insight further explains why any efforts to bring them to justice are likely to fail if doing so without any preponderant power to defeat them decisively. Because of their paranoia and insecurity, they usually develop the strategy of ‘preemptive strike’ against any foes (real or perceived) before any threat to their survival grows stronger. The best counter-strategy for anyone to adopt when not having the level of hard power that can overwhelm that of the dictator also would not be one based on a violent threat to him. Dictators don't like threats and they balance against them. Economic sanctions, however smart they may be, are more likely to harm civilian populations more than they hurt dictators. Appeasement doesn't work either, because this strategy tends to embolden dictators. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement didn’t work with Hitler after he had consolidated power in the 1930s, though it might have worked in the 1920s when Germany was weak following WWI.

The only viable strategy when dealing with dictators in our globalized world is one that assures their security through power-sharing arrangements or credible amnesty. Dictators believe they will lose everything, if they lose power. They have no reason to trust any promise that any loss of power would still keep them safe and secure. It’s worth remembering that dictators are dumb because they don’t know when to stop, but they can still outsmart their opponents when their survival is under threat and can stay in power for a very long time. The dictatorship of North Korea has proved this point.

Thus, don’t be dumb when dealing with dictators. Being dumb doesn’t only mean one doesn’t know when to stop but also means doing the same thing that helps prolong their monopoly of power.

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