Third World Coup Makers, Strongmen,
and Populist Tyrants
By Barry Rubin
[Editors note: This book was published by McGraw-Hill (NY, 1987); British edition, WH
Allen, 1987; paperback, New American Library/Meridian, 1988 (two printings). Copyright
Barry Rubin. Any citation or quotation of this book should carry proper attribution. Note that
page numbers in this reproduction do not match the printed versions. Reproduction, except
for quotations for academic or journalistic purposes, without the author’s written consent is
There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more dangerous to
handle, than to initiate a new order of things… partly from the
incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until
they have had actual experience of it.
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about….
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Politics are just as much a part of life as gambling or poetry; and it is
extremely instructive to see how impotent the political opinions which
men think, are to produce action, and how potent the political
prejudices which men feel, are to produce it.
–George Bernard Shaw,
letter of December 2, 1894
Historians have on the whole been less shocked by foolishness, cruelty,
lack of compassion, missed opportunities, and various tragedies than
sociologists and students of political science, simply because historians
have been preoccupied with what actually happened rather than with
what should have happened.
A World of Secrets
The evolution of dictatorship is as much a part of history as the development of democracy.
In our ear persuasion has become as powerful a force as repression in creating and
maintaining such regimes. Debates over the nature of these systems are at the center of the
contemporary U.S. and European foreign policy debates. The flourishing of dictatorship has
challenged views of history flavored with optimism and based on a deterministic view that
material development brings political progress. At the same time a vision of the world too
narrowly focused on the conflict between communism and capitalism must be refocused to
understand the emergence of a third World. In fact, it is impossible to defend the West
without such an understanding. Our current discussion of dictatorship, much influenced by
earlier analyses of “totalitarianism” based on Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia at their
peak of control and repression, needs to be updated. This model applies only imperfectly to
contemporary dictatorships, particularly those in the Third World.
I have long been interested in the nexus among belief systems, pragmatism, and the
process of making politics and foreign policy. It has seemed to me that different national
histories and political cultures produce their own internally logical systems that may seem the
exact opposite of reality to other people but that may function well for those who know how
to use them. To put it briefly, one person’s political pragmatism is another person’s political
suicide. The lower level of analysis is amoral and detached. At a higher level, however, one
must judge the cost and worth of these choices. In discussing such topics as repression and
corruption, I am trying to understand what works and what does not from the point of view of
governments. I also want to discover to what extent dictatorships are inevitable in certain
countries at this time.
In a book on the United States and Iran, Paved with Good Intentions, I followed the
transformation of a country from a traditional to a modern dictatorship, along with U.S.
efforts to understand and deal with this crisis. In another work, The Arab States and the
Palestine Conflict, I studied how the Arab- Israeli issue became a focus for Arab states’
polities and actions, bringing out the close connection between internal political struggles and
foreign policy. The situation showed how a strategy that worked well for holding or seizing
power within a country could he disastrous from the point of view of achieving goals on the
international level. In a book on U.S. foreign policy, Secrets of State, I looked at the
American policy-making system, noting how personality and bureaucratic considerations
within the government intersected with the events and problems of the outside world. Central,
too, in this process was the peculiar U.S. way of looking at the world, defining America’s role
in it, and making national decisions.
This book turns to the dictators themselves who run so many of the countries in the
Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. It attempts to explain how dictatorship became
the dominant form of government, how it takes power and survives or changes, and how it
poses challenges for the democratic states of the world. My object is to write, on the one
hand, for policymakers and those involved in contemporary affairs and, on the other, for the
general public interested in comprehending an increasingly enigmatic world that affects, even
threatens their lives.
To be useful, writing must communicate ideas derived from a close study of people,
structures, and events in the real world. Complexity and disorderliness, inevitable in human
society, undercut attempts at generalization. The purpose of this book is to make useful crossnational
observations which help to clarify the mass of detail and the swirl of events. I do not
claim the analysis herein is perfect or all-encompassing. The point is not to find some esoteric
exceptions but to use whatever guidelines for comprehension can be derived here.
A number of friends and colleagues have been most helpful in this study. Travel
abroad has also broadened my perceptions of how foreign systems work. I would like to
thank Gérard Chaliand, Patrick Clawson, Michael Clough, Stephen David, Douglas
Friedman, Richard Feinberg, Herbert Howe, Lillian Harris, Walter Laqueur, Robert A.
Manning, Jennifer Noyon, Marina Ottoway, and Nina Serafino for their help and
encouragement. Of course, the contents are my responsibility alone. I would also like to
thank Dan Weaver of McGraw-Hill for his faith and cooperation.
Washington, D.C. 1985-1986