McManus: Even despots don’t live forever

It was a bad year for the villains of the world.

Three of the biggest bad guys met their ends: Osama bin Laden, killed by U.S. commandos who stormed his villa in Pakistan in May; Moammar Kadafi, killed by Libyan insurgents who captured him (with the help of a NATO airstrike) in October; and Kim Jong Il, the ruler of North Korea, who died Dec. 17, reportedly of a heart attack.

Bin Laden was the most important. Americans remember him, of course, as the architect of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But his larger achievement was in organizing Al Qaeda, a multinational movement whose purpose was to focus its violence not on local issues — plenty of terrorist groups do that — but on the distant United States. That innovation will guarantee him a place in history. “It is fair to say,” former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer wrote in his biography of Bin Laden, “that he has had a greater impact on how Americans view their society, government and security than any other individual in the past 50 years.”

Photos: In Memoriam, 2011


But by the time the Navy caught up with Bin Laden, relentless U.S. attacks had reduced the “core” of Al Qaeda to only a few high-value targets, most of them in hiding. True, the organization had atomized successfully into franchise operations in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, but the local groups quickly got caught up in local politics and lost their focus on attacks against the U.S. That caused distress to the founder, who sent letters urging his affiliates to get back to killing Americans. With Bin Laden gone, Al Qaeda isn’t over, but it’s a much smaller threat to us now.

The second of the three despots who left us in 2011 — Kadafi — was known by the end of his career more for his flamboyantly theatrical uniforms and his onetime crush on Condoleezza Rice than for being a global threat. But Kadafi was once one of the world’s top terrorists, instigator of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270. And he ruled his fellow Libyans with an arbitrary brutality exceeded by few others.

The dictator met his end because of a bigger trend, the wave of democratic enthusiasm sweeping the Arab world. Libyans saw autocrats fall in two neighboring countries, Egypt and Tunisia, and decided they could change their circumstances too. Even with considerable help from NATO, it took the rebels six months to take the capital of Tripoli, and two more to capture Kadafi. His end was ugly and ignominious; he appears to have been tortured and shot by the insurgents who found him.

Kim Jong Il, by contrast, died without violence at the end of a 16-year reign over the world’s last hermetically-sealed communist dictatorship, a regime that ruined its own economy but protected itself with nuclear weapons and an alliance with neighboring China.

By the narrowest standard of authoritarian regimes, self-preservation, Kim’s tenure was a success. He passed power on to his 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, who will rule together with his aunt, his uncle and a collection of wizened generals.

But the stability may be illusory. The North Korean dynasty’s first leader, Kim Il Sung, was proclaimed “Great Leader,” and Kim Jong Il was known as “Dear Leader.” But young Kim Jong Un has been named only the “Great Successor” — a title that, by comparison, feels a little tentative.

Kim Jong Il’s death was peaceful, but it was a warning its own way: Even the best-managed tyranny can’t escape the limits of biology. The North Korean regime won’t last forever, any more than its leader could.

Are there any villains left to loathe or fear? Plenty, alas. Kim Jong Un and his relatives don’t look like much of an improvement on Kim Jong Il. Syria is still ruled by Bashar Assad, although his regime is weakening by the day. Sudan’s Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir has waged war against much of his own country. Iran’s Ali Khamenei has presided over merciless repression against his nation’s democratic movement. And Russia’s Vladimir Putin appears bent on returning his country to a modernized version of its bad old days.

But they read the obituaries too. They know that they won’t be around forever, and that if they play their cards badly, their ends could be unpleasant. In 2012, the world’s tyrants and dictators are sleeping a little less comfortably than they did a year ago. And that, in its own way, is good news.