How Long Do Dictators Last?

I was watching the news as the Taliban sweeps fledgling state Iraq, so recently “liberated” from the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein. Are they again to become a failed state due to their own religious factionalism, enslaved yet again by new opportunistic warlords?

“Worst case scenario,” I thought, “they’ll fall to a new dictatorship. But, how long do dictatorships really last? Since ancient Greece, Rome and Persia, I can’t remember a real dictatorship that made it to a hundred years.”

I soon realized, there IS a hair-splitting difference between a dictatorship and a totalitarian regime. Regimes, under a succession of dictators, such as the USSR, last under a century in modern times. And then we have “authoritarian regimes” in which some freedom is tolerated but rigidly monitored, all the way down to “benevolent dictatorships” and kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia, where the king is still head of state and nominally the final authority.

China, once one of the bloodiest dictatorships after millennia of emperors and the indignity of the British Opium Wars, seems at the time to be a special case. North Korea, with its three generations of hereditary Kim Jongs, is almost universally held to be one of the most brutal and detestable regimes, with each generation of “Dear Leader” being crazier than its predecessor.

And finally, we have that resurgent scourge of Huns, the terrorist armies, who, having seen territory they want, simply take them and execute the opposition.

How long do dictatorships last, on an average?

My guess for maximum longevity in recent times was about right. I did some research and analysis.

To make much sense of the conclusions of this piece, you really should first quickly peruse this list at Conservapedia.com “List of Dictators.”

Their website states “The following is a list of national leaders (heads of state and/or heads of government) commonly regarded as modern dictators.” The list is mind-boggling. Look at it. You can see some patterns that dovetail with what we remember of of history, but they don’t lend themselves to easy statistical analysis.

What I liked was that their list included dates dictators were in power. I wanted durations of their reigns over time.

What is their average, high and low reign as absolute ruler? Are there any patterns over time? Would it be fair to say dictatorships are today on the decline world-wide?

I exported their web table to an Excel spreadsheet, calculated each dictatorship’s term in power, and I tried to do some simple analysis. I graphed the most significant result: dictatorships are almost always short-lived aberrations, though frequently followed by new aberrations. I could see no particular evidence they are on the wane; what changes is where and when they sprout, like poison mushrooms after a rain.

I think you could make a case that chaos and authoritarian regimes flourish after an occupying power vacates, or is forced out of, a geographical area. But this is tough to prove. Given the scholarly difficulty of tracking down the history of every individual shifting country on the list, I didn’t try to quantify my conclusion.

I’d have liked to see graphed breakouts by region, and more by century or historical period, but in most cases it is easy enough to see those patterns in the Conservapedia listing.

I compiled my chart by counting the number of occurrences of 0 years, 1 year, 2 years and so on, all the way up to a 47 year maximum duration of power. There were 230 entries total. There were a few multiple entries representing multiple terms by the same despot. My graph only answers my original question, “How long do dictatorships last, on an average?”

No modern dictatorship ever lasted 100 years. I see no clear trend showing dictatorships are dwindling world-wide. The new hotspots are Africa and the Middle East. I found 220 distinct “modern dictators.”

You’ll find a graph of my “how long do they last?” results below.

Dictator

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La mystérieuse affaire de Yasser Arafat

In recent news, the widow of the poor unfortunate old Arafat authorized the exhumation of his remains for further forensic testing. The rumor that he had been poisoned had never gone away. Arafat died in 2004, or was murdered, depending on which rumors you believe. So far, two forensic teams have completed investigations of this case. Swiss, Russian and French scientific teams gained access to the remains for independent analysis in November 2013.

According to Aljazeera, “Swiss scientists who conducted tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body have found at least 18 times the normal levels of radioactive polonium in his remains. The scientists said that they were confident up to an 83 percent level that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned with it, which they said “moderately supports” polonium as the cause of his death.”

According to Reuters, “The French report concluded that some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas in the tomb where Arafat was buried. The Swiss experts said on the contrary that the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.”

The French team found the radioactive gas radon on the outside of Arafat’s clothing. If, Reuters cited the French finding accurately, the French said they found “some of the radioactivity could be explained by the presence of radon gas,” there is no explanation for the phrase “some of the” unless there were also other sources of radioactivity.

Having the advantage of unlimited access to the results of the autopsy, which was conducted in Paris where Arafat died, the French said that Arafat died of a stroke which was a complication of a severe bacterial infection, which was the original 2004 finding. So, they ruled the cause of death to be illness.

Thorium and uranium decay byproducts include radium, and its decay product radon. Radon has a half-life of 3.8 days. Polonium is a radioactive metal found naturally in uranium and thorium ores.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “Polonium-210 (Po-210) is a radioactive element that occurs naturally and is present … Because Po-210 is produced from the decay of radon-222 gas.”

This directly contradicts the Swiss opinion as reported by Reuters, that “the level of radon gas was due to the radioactivity in his body.” If the Swiss were quoted accurately, that would represent a huge disconnect with physics.

Polonium is produced from the decay of radon, not the other way around, so radon is not “the smoking gun” for polonium poisoning.

On the other hand, if it is true that radon detected on the burial clothing was just the result of naturally occurring concentration, it would be unreasonable to expect French scientists to report an even tinier trace of polonium, a naturally occurring decay product.

So far, there is no news report that either Swiss or French have exchanged results of their independent investigations, why they did or didn’t attach any particular relevance to the radioactivity connection, or detailed reasons for their conclusions. The French report is still preliminary at this writing, because news of it was leaked.

A number of obvious questions seem to remain unanswered. There is no clear consensus whether the radiation source was polonium or radon; they attributed it only to naturally occurring radon where it collects in underground spaces such as tombs. In either case, radioactivity is hazardous to the health, and there is a huge discrepancy between the highly abnormal polonium concentration found by the Swiss, and naturally occurring levels of radon found by the French.

If the Swiss scientists identified polonium by a combination of chemical tests and spectroscopy, a mistaken identification seems extraordinarily improbable. Also, the idea that they could mistakenly measure an 18-times concentration of that metal is quite implausible.

Samples for the independent tests would have been taken at the same point in time. It would be difficult to hypothesize that one set of samples contained polonium and the other did not. It will be interesting to learn what Russian scientists find.

Signs of radiation sickness would, all other things being equal, strike the elderly or infirm first. Arafat was both. The effects of radiation exposure are cumulative, and can affect the immune system in many ways. The effect of even medical radiation dosages on the immune system is already well known in hospitals.

Following this line of logic, it would appear that, if a strong source of radiation was actually present in or on the ailing Arafat, a “bacterial infection” might easily have resulted.

Staph infections, for example, are frequently contracted right in the hospital. This hypothesis would argue strongly in favor of a murder verdict, not against the medical facilities, but on unknown persons who might have caused the hospital death through a hard-to-trace chain of events initiated by poisoning Arafat with a radioactive substance.

Analysis appears further complicated by ambiguous news reporting on such a highly technical scientific subject.

Finally, there’s the unresolved question of who might have murdered Arafat. For the foreseeable future, this is a cold case that will never be solved without new discovery.

The popular theory in the Middle East, outside of Israel, is that the Israeli Mossad was responsible for this. Arafat became an internationally respected leader and a stabilizing force in Palestine, after co-brokering the Camp David Accords with Prime Minister Rabin. Arafat was most heavily criticized by Islamists, PLO leftists and Hamas for being too lenient in negotiations with Israel. This would tend to place Israel lower on a theoretical list of suspects, and PLO dissidents and similar militant factions, relatively higher.

The device of polonium poisoning is also associated with a number of sensational assassinations in Northern Europe, suspected to be the work of Soviet or Russian agents. But since scientific experts cannot even agree on evidence for or against these theories in the mysterious Arafat affair, blame is usually attributed to the political motivations of the accuser. If Arafat died as a result of foul play, there does not yet seem to be compelling evidence for any particular cause or agency.

Alex Forbes, December 4, 2013

Sources for this article

==========================

http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Factsheets/English/polonium210.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polonium

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radon

http://www.aljazeera.com/investigations/killing-arafat/swiss-study-polonium-found-arafats-bones-201311522578803512.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/03/us-palestinians-arafat-idUSBRE9B20DI20131203

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The OSS and Ho Chi Minh

Book by Dixee R. Bartholomew-Feis. University Press of Kansas

The OSS and Ho Chi Minh

“Some will be shocked to find out that the United States and Ho Chi Minh, our nemesis for much of the Vietnam War, were once allies. Indeed, during the last year of World War II, American spies in Indochina found themselves working closely with Ho Chi Minh …”

Good book review. An enlightening short read. We trained Uncle Ho, and the fighters that became the Viet Cong, in guerrilla warfare. The international face of American diplomacy hasn’t usually been our Secretary of State, it’s been the Pentagon. Check it out.

 

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Predator: The Slippery Slope

We are still fighting wars with tactics better suited to World War II than Afghanistan. We use tanks even though we are not in the desert fighting Rommel. We use gunships even though this may take out a whole village to take down one insurgent, and we call that “collateral damage.” We send our boys overseas for three, four, even five tours, asking them to go into those villages and figure out which handful of Afghans are combatant Taliban. In Afghanistan, our enemy are in the villages because they live there.

In Bill Cosby’s 1963 “Toss of the Coin” take on the Minutemen vs. the Redcoats, the British lose the coin toss. They’re told “you guys have to wear red coats and march in a straight line” while “we get to hide behind trees and shoot at you.” We lost the coin toss in the Mideast.

In Bill Moyers’ recent in-depth interview “Moving Beyond War”, he has a series of interesting conversations with Andrew Bacevich, “a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran-turned-scholar who’s become one of the most perceptive observers of America’s changing role in the world.”

The following excerpt tracks that portion of their discussion in which they covered our increasing and controversial use of the Predator unmanned drone. Many Americans are asking if this tactic is moral. Does it divorce accountability from the military-political process? Perhaps, but does it save American lives? Here is the excerpt from the transcript:

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don’t think anybody today thinks that counterinsurgency is going to pacify Afghanistan.

BILL MOYERS: Why didn’t it work?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Again, one would refer to Afghan history here, that this is simply not a place that accommodates foreign invaders who think they know how to run the place better than the local population. But what I would want to emphasize, I think, is that by last year, I think Obama himself had given up on the notion that counterinsurgency provided a basis for U.S. strategy and had, indeed, begun to implement Plan C. And Plan C is targeted assassination.

Plan C is relying on drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles, and also commandos, special operation forces, in order to conduct military operations, in essence on a global basis, identifying those who could pose a threat to us. And without regard to congressional authority, without regard to considerations of national sovereignty, to go kill the people we think need to be killed. Plan C is already being implemented.

BILL MOYERS: Most people seem to accept it as an alternative to failure in Afghanistan, and as a way of keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and also they accept it because of course, it doesn’t cost us anything. We are not, the people are not engaged in any serious way. The people are not asked to sacrifice. The people are asked only to applaud when we are told after the fact that an attack has succeeded.

I don’t have any easy answers to the Predator problem. I favor keeping our boys out of harm’s way. That’s why I’m also for an accelerated withdrawal from a hopeless quagmire. I do not see Afghanistan as a unified country in need of defense or capable of benefiting from it, even if they asked us to stay, which doubtless they now will not.

But we all recognize that targeted robot assassinations are a slippery slope. Yet we never resolved our differences on CIA assassinations several decades ago. At what point do assassinations become immoral?

My take on Predator’s slippery slope is that “assassination” launches should be accountable to, and only authorized by, our country’s highest elected civilian leaders, never by military field commanders – however reputable and trustworthy. This kind of target must be a high-ranking military or paramilitary individual or unit, actively engaged in military hostilities against the United States or its armed forces, or poised to do so when it is too late to stop them by conventional means. The high-profile target must be non-containable by means of timely kill-or-capture. And the target may not be a civilian head of state unless the President determines an extraordinary and imminent threat to national or global security, such as a Hitler.

I draw a sharp line between targeted assassinations and calling in a drone strike in a combat situation. If no noncombatants are killed, and American lives are saved, I’m for tactical strikes. But I still resist the idea of uncontrolled field-level deployment. I believe Congress and the Defense Department should get involved in creating light-speed control and monitoring mechanisms, and high-level field commanders should have the responsibility for approving tactical strikes and reviewing results.

Remember, the United States will not long be the only nation deploying smart unmanned aircraft systems. It would be in our own self-interest for the United States to take the lead in defining clear-cut boundaries.

Bin Laden obviously would have been an eligible Predator target (though we took him out with our miraculous Navy Seal team). But Assad most probably would not be. For that, we need the United Nations. It is perhaps too soon to tell if Russia and China have committed to cooperative global efforts to reduce global atrocities, but their new-found willingness to go along with the UN’s Mr. Annan in pressuring Syria is encouraging. And, China has greatly facilitated efforts to pressure North Korea on its nuclear weapons program.

Concerted world cooperation and containment is the anti-terrorist weapon of the future.

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U.S. Military Role Against Khadafi

The White House take is that the US ‘can act in Libya without Congress‘ because our current role is only supportive of NATO and does not fall under the War Powers Resolution. US involvement against Khadafi has so far consisted of participating in NATO air sorties on government buildings, tanks and ground troops.

But some members of Congress now say the President exceeded his authority because he did not obtain Congressional permission.

Congress last issued a formal declaration of war in World War II. Congress never even declared an authorization for the 1950 Korean War.

Actions since then have been covered under various resolutions and acts, but without formal declaration of war. Congress authorized extended military combat in Vietnam, perhaps not anticipating US involvement from 1961 to 1975. It was at this point Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, generally limiting the President to committing US forces over 60 days without Congressional approval or declared national emergency.

History will surely note that Congress did authorize the Bush-instigated war in Afghanistan in 2001, and the almost concurrent war in Iraq in 2003.

The US action in Libya was arguably our smallest foreign intervention since we helped elbow Aristide out of Haiti in 2004. But let no one say Congressional objections to the Libyan involvement are motivated by partisan politics.

If Congress in its infinite wisdom must carp about our minimal air support of the Libyan rebels’ Arab Spring, then perhaps the complainers should introduce a bill repudiating our cooperation with NATO effort to unseat Khadafi Duck. Authorize the action, produce a formal repudiation, or get off the pot.

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