Debate: Immunity or prosecution for rogue leaders?
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
November 25th, 2011
12:45 PM ET

Debate: Immunity or prosecution for rogue leaders?

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN

Despite its good intentions, the International Criminal Court and other venues for prosecution of former leaders inhibits political reform. After 33 years in power, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen finally stepped down. His resignation follows ten months of protest, his severe injury in a mortar attack on the Presidential Palace in June and three abortive attempts to have him resign. The difference this time was that he was granted immunity from prosecution.

One of the major arguments for harsh punishments is their deterrent value. Unfortunately, in the international arena the threat of punishment has precisely the opposite effect. As long as they stay in power, leaders are immune from prosecution. The international community typically turns a blind eye to their actions under the guise of sovereignty. And even when they register their protest, there is little they can do against a sitting incumbent. Yet once deposed, the ire of domestic and international audiences is heaped upon former leaders. Given these incentives, it is small wonder that leaders take any and every gamble to stay in power. This might not be everyone’s idea of justice but there are undoubtedly numerous widows and orphans in Yemen who wish immunity had been granted 10 months ago.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

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Topics: Law • Yemen
Has Occupy Wall Street reined in CEO bonuses? No.
A large gathering of protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street Movement attend a rally in Union Square on November 17, 2011 in New York City. (Getty Images)
November 21st, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Has Occupy Wall Street reined in CEO bonuses? No.

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN

Wall Street executive bonuses are expected to be down by about a quarter this season. After two months of occupying Wall Street, can the 99% take credit for reining in the excesses of corporate America? In a word: No.

Even in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis, bonuses remained “shamefully” robust.  The perceived injustice of executives rewarding themselves while their firms were propped up by the public purse helped create much of the anger that prompted the Occupy Wall Street movement. Even though many companies are expected to cut bonuses this year, Wall Street remains tone deaf to the cries of those outside their offices. FULL POST

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Topics: Business • Occupy Wall Street
November 18th, 2011
11:57 AM ET

How to fix corruption in FIFA

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN

Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA (soccer’s world governing body), is in trouble again. This time, he made insensitive comments denying racism in soccer. FIFA needs a shake up in its governance if it is not to remain an embarrassment to the 'beautiful game'.

One might suspect that racially insensitive comments would be career ending for the head of a high profile multinational sports federation, but they are not. Indeed Blatter told the BBC that “I cannot resign” and he portrays his decision to apologize and to stay on as one of moral courage. His position is secure and already his cronies are rallying around him. His survival is ensured by FIFA’s governance structure. FULL POST

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Topics: Sports
Is Rick Perry’s zero foreign aid plan feasible? Desirable?
November 15th, 2011
09:30 AM ET

Is Rick Perry’s zero foreign aid plan feasible? Desirable?

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN

Rick Perry claims that if elected president he would scrap foreign aid. While I believe such a plan might be good for poor people around the world because it could reduce dependence on the U.S. and promote third-world growth and democratization, I also think ending foreign aid is against the interests of U.S. voters.

Aid is only nominally about helping the poor. The simple fact is, aid does not flow to the most needy. Based on 2009 figures from USAID, only 29% of the U.S.’s $34 billion in economic assistance went to low-income countries and over $3 billion of that went to a single recipient, Afghanistan. While aid might have benevolent side effects, the reality is that U.S. foreign aid is used to buy compliance with policies favorable to America.

In the process, aid also props up those leaders who are willing to enact such policies. They tend to be mostly autocrats because their support can be more cheaply bought. The graph below illustrates the point by plotting U.S. aid to Egypt in millions of dollars. Either Americans suddenly became concerned about the plight of Egyptians in the late 1970’s or the U.S. paid out so that Egypt would recognize the State of Israel.

FULL POST

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Topics: 2012 Election • Aid
Nicaragua's slip back to authoritarianism?
Sandinista Party leader and former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks to supporters in Managua 19 July, 2000, as they celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Sandinista revolution which toppled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. (Getty Images)
November 10th, 2011
11:56 AM ET

Nicaragua's slip back to authoritarianism?

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN

New York City’s Major Michael Bloomberg and former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega share something in common. They both circumvented term limits and ran for another term. But while NYC’s democratic culture looks secure, Nicaragua is in some danger of backsliding into authoritarianism.

Ortega led the revolutionary movement that overthrew the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. Nicaragua became engulfed in a civil war against U.S. backed Contra rebels. By the time the war was over, much of the country was destroyed and despite recent robust economic growth, today Nicaragua remains the poorest nation on the American mainland. After a transition towards democracy, Ortega served one term as president before being defeated at the polls in 1990.

He remained influential in politics and, despite losing two additional elections, was once again elected President in 2006. Constitutionally he was forbidden from running in 2011, but since he controlled many of the judges on the Supreme Court, this provision of the constitution was overturned on the basis that it would violate his human rights. The court apparently concluded that part of the constitution was somehow unconstitutional!

FULL POST

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Topics: Latin America • Politics
Why Berlusconi may behave like Caesar
A bust of Julius Caesar, believed to be the oldest representation of the Roman emperor yet known. (Getty Images)
November 9th, 2011
10:07 AM ET

Why Berlusconi may behave like Caesar

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Alastair Smith - Special to CNN

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says he is going but he is still not yet gone. He will wait until reforms pass, but it is uncertain if and when that will be. And having thrown the possibility of elections into the mix, he might still be back. His tenacity in clinging to power is astounding. But then again he is highly motivated. His enemies are baying for his blood and he faces prosecution in numerous cases.  Even though a court ruling in 2009 overturned a law granting immunity to a sitting Prime Minister, he can defend himself much better in office than out. Much the same was true over two thousand years ago.

Julius Caesar was commander of the Roman armies in Gaul, a position that gave him immunity from prosecution. Yet, the moment he stepped down, he would have been at the mercy of his enemies, and they were unlikely to have shown any. He took that critical irreversible step - in his case, literally crossing the Rubicon– and invaded Rome. While no one is claiming that Berlusconi is going to seize power militarily, the case of Caesar should remind us that desperate people with little left to lose take desperate step. These actions are rarely in the national interest. FULL POST

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Topics: Europe • Politics
November 8th, 2011
03:00 PM ET

Will Brazil become like Venezuela?

Editor's Note: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, both professors of politics at NYU, are the authors of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith - Special to CNN

While Brazil ascends economically, Mexico appears mired with slow economic growth, high unemployment and escalating drug violence. Yet, in terms of politics, it is in Mexico that democracy is likely to consolidate, while Brazil is at somewhat greater risk from increased corruption and authoritarianism.

Brazil, the B in BRIC, has become one of the world’s economic powerhouses. Yet, much of this new-found wealth comes from a burgeoning natural resource sector. What is more, this wealth is increasingly concentrated in the semi-public Petrobras Corporation.  Improved extraction techniques for subsalt oil and gas suggest a likely three-fold increase in production by 2020. If combined with an increase in world oil prices, then this would free Dilma Rousseff’s Workers Party, which heads the government, of the need to be conciliatory when confronted with mass protest. Brazilians should be wary of their country becoming the next Venezuela.

In contrast, democracy looks safe in Mexico even through its economy has been hit by a recession induced by its close ties to the U.S.  In 2009, GDP fell by 6.1% and unemployment reached 6.4%. Things have subsequently improved, but the Mexican economy appears lackluster. Drug-related violence continues with over 15,000 drug related deaths last year. Yet this violent confrontation is a sign that the government is determined to tackle the political and economic influence of drug gangs and minimize this black-market portion of its economy. Against its tough economic background and dwindling oil revenues, politics is becoming more competitive.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Check out their book: The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

November 8th, 2011
12:33 PM ET

Looking up in Myanmar?

Editor's Note: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, both professors of politics at NYU, are the authors of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith - Special to CNN

Things are looking better in Myanmar. With a shift to civilian rule, its new leader Thein Sein is implementing reforms and releasing political prisoners. Unfortunately for the Burmese people, these changes are likely to be transitory.

After nearly 50 years of military rule, Myanmar held elections in November 2010. These were largely a sham as the military reinvented itself as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and won with over 75 percent of the vote. Yet policy has shifted with relaxation of media restrictions and reform of tax and property laws. FULL POST

November 7th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Why Syria will reform

Editor's Note: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, both professors of politics at NYU, are the authors of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith - Special to CNN

Despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive response to protest, political reforms are likely in Syria over the next few years.

Keeping many people happy is much harder than satiating the few, which is why meaningful political reforms make it harder for political leaders to retain power.  It should therefore come as no surprise that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is cracking heads and sending in the tanks.

Yet, despite his militant stance, the prospects for reform in Syria are good. Even the most dictatorial leaders need supporters. Expert surveys suggest that of Syria’s nearly 23 million residents, Assad relies upon between 3,000 and 10,000 supporters to retain power. These people, who are primarily senior bureaucrats and members of the military and security forces, will only back the regime if they anticipate they will continue to be well rewarded.

Unfortunately for Assad, he finds such promises increasingly difficult to keep. With oil revenues dwindling, aid drying up and budget deficits of around 10% of GDP, Syria’s government has been forced to liberalize the economy to raise revenues. These reforms empowered the people to organize in opposition to the government. Crushing the masses harms the economy and removes the very source of revenue Assad needs in order to pay his supporters.  As fiscal difficulties escalate, Assad’s survival will become increasingly difficult and modest political reform will become inevitable.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Check out their book: The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

November 7th, 2011
08:00 AM ET

Why did Gadhafi fall? He was too nice

Editor's Note: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, both professors of politics at NYU, are the authors of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith - Special to CNN

Generally, acting like a dictator is the best way for political leaders to achieve their most sacred goal - staying in power.  That’s the basic message of our book, The Dictator’s Handbook. Yet, dictators have been falling all over the world.  Here we outline where one infamous dictator veered away from dictator guidelines:

Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi has been vilified by the West but his 42 year reign came to an end because he violated one of the basic rules of survival in office: In the few years running up to his end, he was too nice to the people.  The wealth Gadhafi needed to pay his supporters came from his control of oil revenues. He did not need an educated and connected workforce to raise taxes. Yet, he gave Libyans considerably more education than his neighbors. As can be seen in the graph below (based on data from Reporters Without Borders), in recent years he also relaxed press restrictions. His "benevolence" allowed the people to organize against him.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. This is the first of several quick posts from the authors highlighting their counterintuitive views.

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