In the early 1990s, a top diplomat of an Eastern European country was summoned to the palace of the Syrian dictator, Hafez al Assad. The diplomat was told to come alone. He had no idea why he was summoned. He was ushered into the dictator's presence. There were no other officials in the room, not even translators. He and al Assad were able to converse in French.
Small talk ensued for about 15 minutes and the diplomat became increasingly perplexed. Why had he been summoned? Then the Syrian ruler casually mentioned, in words such as these: Tell me, how could a man like [Nicolae] Ceausescu, who controlled the security services, the military, all the newspapers and television stations, and the entire political apparatus, be overthrown and executed? How was that possible? I'm only asking because I am curious. The diplomat now noticed how agitated the Syrian ruler had become. So this was why he had been summoned! The overthrow of the Romanian dictator during Christmas of 1989 had terrified al Assad like no event in the Middle East could have. For if a tyrant who ruled in the manner of a Stalinist totalitarian could be violently toppled, then no dictator was safe on his throne.
At this moment the diplomat, an acquaintance of mine, saw in all its intensity the utter loneliness of absolute power. Those who have served in government at high positions, even in a democracy, having to make decisions that will define them for the rest of their lives -- while much of what they do is distorted daily by an intemperate media -- have some minor inkling of this loneliness. For as one former secretary of state once told me, fateful decisions are often taken in a silent room because no one else wants the responsibility. But imagine the tyrant, with no media to worry about or to restrain him, and no one who dares to give him truthful advice -- or to contradict him -- then you must multiply the loneliness a thousand times. A late State Department Arabist once counseled me about the al Assads of this world: "They work under degrees of stress that would psychologically immobilize any Washington politician."
The tyrant is constantly surrounded and followed by aides, even as he is emotionally isolated from human society. The tyrant did not become a tyrant because he was stupid; far from it, the tyrant rose to power by his sheer animal presence and manipulative brilliance. But being both manipulative and brilliant, he also knows that all men are his enemies, and therefore public opinion in some sense matters more to him than to any democratic leader. If he misjudges public opinion, he risks losing not an election, but losing his head, literally. The physical safety of himself and his family depends always on his accurate assessment of the popular mood.
The people must be kept happy, he knows. And if they cannot be kept happy, then they must be absolutely terrified of ever complaining about not being happy. It is one or the other. So the tyrant monitors the economy in a different way than do democratic leaders. A Texas businessman I met long ago once told me a story about his audience with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The businessman had been involved in commercial deals with Iraq in the 1980s and on one visit to Baghdad was ushered into Hussein's presence. Again, small talk ensued until Hussein casually mentioned that the Iraqi economy was slated to expand over the next few years. The businessman, not thinking, said, "Those are not the figures that I see, Mr. President." Suddenly Hussein became animated and asked, "Really, what are the figures you see?" Then the businessman noticed that the man next to him, one of Hussein's top economic aides, had just broken out into a deep sweat. The businessman thus saw the dictator's dilemma in all its horror: The more absolute and thus the more successful the tyranny, the less likely that anyone would dare to tell the tyrant the truth. The ruler's very ability to intimidate others meant that he was fated to operate inside a vacuum of knowledge.
Never being contradicted leads to massive, periodic blunders. Hussein never really believed that in 2003 the United States would invade Iraq, and whatever his inner circle may have thought, those in it never seriously challenged their boss on this point. Hussein and his two sons were killed as a consequence.
As for Hafez al Assad, he need not have worried. Ceausescu's fate was different from his own. Ceausescu had certainly demonstrated the ruthless brilliance of a peasant in his rise to power. But as illness crept in, he gradually ceded crucial responsibilities to his vain and stupid wife, Elena, whose decisions in the late 1980s essentially led to the couple's execution. Contrarily, al Assad died peacefully in his bed, still in power -- the ultimate goal of every tyrant.
Al Assad achieved that goal by respecting limits, at least after the fashion of his own standards. His brutality was much less than that of Hussein. In Syria, people could speak their minds provided they never did so publicly; in Iraq, people were afraid even inside their own households to do so. Al Assad committed atrocities only at pivotal, useful moments: during the Lebanese civil war and when there had been a nascent Sunni challenge to his Alawite rule. Al Assad railed against Israel, even as after 1974 he silently obeyed a truce with it. Hussein, on the other hand, murdered perhaps hundreds of thousands within Iraq and started a war with Iran that may have killed more than a million people. Relatively soon after that war was over, he invaded Kuwait. Al Assad was known to have quipped about Hussein, "He is like a chain smoker. He can't finish one war without starting another one."
And who knows? His son, Bashar al Assad, may die peacefully in his bed, too, one day in Damascus, still in power, for he has recently improved both his political and military position in the Syrian civil war. His father would have been proud. Yes, Bashar has killed many more people than did his father, but what were his choices -- from his point of view, I mean -- faced with a widespread, popular revolt in an age of electronic communications? Should he have negotiated his own demise -- something that would have led eventually to either a firing squad or a trial in The Hague? Negotiating for one's own fate in such a manner is something an enlightened Western mind would certainly consider, but the mind of a tyrant works differently.
Of course, former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi -- because of his own delusions and theatrical excesses -- had a Ceausescu-like fate. Now there is Egypt's new strongman, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Though technically an elected leader, he knows that when he oversaw the killing of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in the streets that he had crossed a line. If he is ever toppled, prison could be the safest place for him. And because of events since 2011, he knows that all Egyptians now know that it is within their power to remove a leader. Improving the economic life of the common man may be critical to al-Sisi's own physical survival. Finally, there is Iraq's Shiite strongman, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has become increasingly tyrannical during his eight years in power and has reaped a whirlwind of extremist Sunni rebellion as a consequence.
No one should envy a tyrant. His existence is miserable.