Why Didn’t Gaddafi Just Retire?

Close on the heels of his capture and apparent execution by Libyan rebels, we are learning that longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi amassed an astonishing personal fortune over his 40+ years in power. According to a story in today’s Washington Post (emphasis added),

Gaddafi secretly salted away more than $200 billion in bank accounts, real estate and corporate investments around the world before he was killed — about $30,000 for every Libyan citizen and double the amount that Western governments previously had suspected, according to senior Libyan officials…If the values are accurate, Gaddafi will go down in history as one of the most rapacious as well as one of the most bizarre world leaders.

That’s billion with a B, folks. If it’s even close to accurate, that fortune would have made Gaddafi the richest person in the world.

Gaddafi’s mind-boggling wealth poses a puzzle for political scientists who study authoritarian rule. With all that money stuffed under his mattress, why didn’t Gaddafi just walk away early in the course of the rebellion to enjoy a fat retirement? When you’ve already got $200 billion to work with, the marginal benefits of additional accumulation are going to be pretty thin. Instead, Gaddafi chose to stick it out, and look where that decision got him (warning: graphic).

Most theories of authoritarian rule solve this problem by fiat. Rulers are simply assumed to value staying in office over everything else, and at virtually any cost. If we start with that assumption, Gaddafi’s behavior is not puzzling at all–but recently “retired” Tunisian president Ben Ali‘s is. Recall that Ben Ali fled his country just a few weeks after Tunisia’s popular uprising started to gain steam, before it was apparent whether or not the challenge could be sustained. Clearly, retirement is an option for some dictators.

In short, I think we still have a pretty poor understanding of what motivates authoritarian rulers to cling to power (or not). This matters, because the better we understand rulers’ motivations, the better equipped we are as policy-makers or activists to design strategies that might drive those rulers from office and allow for democratization. Among the many things the Arab uprisings of 2011 will give the world, perhaps one of them will be a better grasp of how dictators decide when enough is enough.

PS. On October 23, The New York Times ran this story describing Gaddafi’s last days, based mostly on the account of one member of his inner circle. The story suggests that Gaddafi may have been willing to cede power and trying to flee the country toward the end, but it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the words of one man whose own fate was so closely tied to the colonel’s.

PPS. Over at the Monkey Cage, eminent political scientist Barbara Walter sees Gaddafi’s decision to stick it out as an unfortunate side effect of a strengthened International Criminal Court.

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