How Dictators Faired in 2011

December 25, 2011

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In a few days, 2012 will be celebrated with excitement, maybe relief and some trepidation in global capitals.

Upon some reflection, the general consensus will be that 2011 was an eventful year.

Of the significant changes that happened over the course of 2011, the Arab Spring and the very recent demonstrations in Moscow after their latest effort at democratization, the fact that the world is no longer haunted by as many dictators and despots who defined our collective understanding of the international system, could define 2011 as much as some of the peaceful transfer of powers that happened in the Middle East and North Africa.

Whether at the hands of American Special Forces (Osama bin Laden), American drone aircraft (Anwar al-Awlaki), at the hands of his own countrymen (Col. Muammar Qaddafi), or through decades of a high caloric diet (Kim Jong-il), 2011 was not a pleasant year for a number of bad actors.

And in 2012, the Robert Mugabe’s of the world will be anxious to see if they will suffer the same fate.

In some cases, the deaths of Obama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki signify the further decline of a terrorist organization that many around the globe came to fear and co-opted the United States and western governments into spending upwards of trillions of dollars to defeat.

By all accounts, this massive flow of capital has paid off, but at what cost.

Osama bin Laden, as the images of him attest to, sat and watched countless hours of television from his not so hidden hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was unable to influence events beyond his bedroom. Al Qaeda over the past decade had become a leaderless organization with offshoots of it running around the Horn of Africa, North Africa and in the Middle East causing trouble but not primarily under the direction of bin Laden or his lieutenants.

The death of Kim Jong-il creates more uncertainty in North Korea and raises the question of whether his son, Kim Jong-un, is a capable negotiating partner.

However, from all outwards signs, North and South Korea, and by extension the United States and China are not headed towards a violent confrontation. More than likely, the status quo will continue.

2012 will likely be defined by North Korean promises to return to the negotiating table if, for no other reason, that the United States and others will make further promises of aid to the desperately isolated country. North Korea will continue to offer limited concessions in exchange for food and fuel assistance.

However, Kim’s death does not compensate the North Koreans for the thousands of deaths that he either ordered or contributed to through his blatant disregard for the welfare of his own countrymen. And Kim’s death will unlikely usher in any significant changes to the internal dynamics of North Korea relating to the easing of rules that govern the daily lives of its citizens.

North Korea could witness a brain drain as its elites flee south or refuse to return to North Korea from China, and politically, at least, Kim’s death could result in a political reshuffling in North Korea.

Speaking to The Korea Times, Do Hee-yun, of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, suggests that a number of North Korean elites are finding any and all excuses to avoid traveling back to Pyongyang following the death of Kim Jong-il. “Many ranking North Korean officials in China are refusing to return after being summoned to North Korea,” Do Hee-yun said.

More than anything else, this hesitation by North Korean elites signifies the unsettled nature of North Korean politics. By all accounts, Kim Jong-un was slated to assume the mantle of leadership. However, it is suspected by many North Korean experts that after decades of rule by the Kim dynasty, the North Korean elite may be prepared to break the longstanding tradition of hereditary rule.

“It remains to be seen whether Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek will help Jong-un take firm control of North Korea or remove his nephew with the help of other top military figures, such as Kim Yong-chun, minister of the North’s People’s Armed Forces,” suggested Kang Sung-kyu, of Korea University.

The killing of Libya’s Qaddafi bookended months of NATO bombings and back and forth victories by Libyans who in the beginning were simply demanding more freedoms not the wholesale change that eventually unfolded.

Again, much like Kim Jong-il, Qaddafi was a self-serving soulless fellow whose wonton disregard for the welfare of Libyans contributed to a general sense of relief that Libya is better off without him.

The individuals and regimes that met an untimely or premature death this past year share a similarity, which is striking. None of the regimes groomed a successor.

Certainly, as in the cases of Qaddafi, Jong-il and Mubarak, there are sons who were being primed to assume the role of chief executive but none went to great lengths to prepare their sons to assume office.

However, 2011 was not solely defined by the killing or deaths by natural causes of despots.

The Arab Spring prompted several leaders to vacate their offices somewhat on their own accord after some soul-searching. While Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak vacated their offices, only Zine el-Abidine ben Ali had the foresight to flee.

In June, the former Tunisian president was sentenced in absentia along with his wife but this will unlikely bring any closure to the countless number of Tunisians who suffered under his rule.

Egypt, post-Mubarak, has many in Foggy Bottom concerned whether Egypt is on a path towards Islamic rule versus secular governance which defined the decades that Mubarak was in power.

One of the larger stories of 2011, but one that was overshadowed by the death of Kim Jong-il, is America’s exit from Iraq. While 2003 marked the end of the Hussein legacy and his subsequent death in 2006 by a hangman’s noose, the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq leaves in doubt whether Iraqi politicians can govern independently of the American military. Already there are growing signs that without the American military presence, which served as a buffer between Sunni and Shiite politicians, the fragile coalitions will unravel.

Time Magazine appropriately deemed 2011 the year of the protester. However, these global movements are ongoing and it is unclear whether they are productive developments or whether uncertainty will prevail and for how long.

Tunisia has witnessed a relatively smooth transition of power with elections, which were deemed free and fair by many international observers. Libya, post-Qaddafi is still in its infancy and the Egyptian military certainly is reluctant to relinquish power.

And in Russia, its still unclear whether the recent protests will gain traction and if the Kremlin is prepared to usher in the reforms that the protest movement is demanding. It would appear that despite the massive protests in Moscow over the past week or so, Putin is still on track to become the country’s next president despite the almost certain development that New Jersey Nets owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, will enter the race to challenge him.

In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe still holds onto power, the North Korean government is more or less still in control despite the loss of Kim Jong-il, and in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko is refusing to usher in any necessary reforms.  Finally, in Iran, the government is still in complete control and will use force to crush dissent.

Countless other dictators around the globe are willing to use force to remain in power, and there is still a long way to go before people the world over will be able to decide their own futures and the type of governments that represent them.

The events of 2011, however, provided the promise of reform.

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