Misperception and Reality

Political Leaders and "Iron Cages"

September 19, 2014

As events in Syria have been unfolding, a remark made several years ago by King Abdullah of Jordan sticks in my mind. Abdullah, an intelligent, enlightened monarch like his father King Hussein, was explaining why he was optimistic about the future of the Arab world. He spoke about a new generation of Arab leaders whose views were like his--for example, Bashar Al-Assad. Bashar Al-Assad!!! What!!? Nowadays, Assad hardly looks like an enlightened young leader. On the contrary, he looks like a ruthless dictator, responsible for killing thousands of his people. How could Abdullah have been so wrong in his judgment?


This situation highlights an important, too often ignored aspect of political reality, which is absolutely essential to understanding the roles of leaders of states. It may be that Assad actually is an enlightened, humane individual. More importantly, however, he is a cog in a system that was not of his making, over which he has only limited control.


We tend to believe that the leaders of states, and especially dictators, actually determine, or at least approve of, the policies they adopt. In fact, this is largely an illusion. Leaders of states, like all other human beings, are like prisoners in "iron cages" (to borrow Max Weber's metaphor). It is certainly true that the decisions leaders make, and the orders they give can have great consequences. Yet even the most powerful of leaders and ruthless of dictators are largely captives of the situations within which they make decisions. Their decisions and the extent to which their aims and objectives are realizable are always subject to overwhelming constraints. Leaders are sometimes driven in directions they never intended to take.


In 1988, I had a conversation with Ognyan Panov, Director of the Institute of Social Management of the Academy of Social Science of the Communist Party of Bulgaria. He was explaining to me that the Communist power system in Bulgaria was so flawed that there was no alternative but to smash it. He knew I was recording the conversation. I pointed to the portrait of Communist Party leader, Todor Zhivkov on the wall, and asked what he thought about these views. Panov said Zhivkov fully agreed with him. I asked if he talked this way to the Party's Politburo. He said that, although he used different words, his message was the same.


How could this be? Why would Zhivkov, a dictator, even a totalitarian dictator, want to smash the system over which he presided? And, if he really agreed that the system needed to be smashed, why didn't he go ahead and smash it? At the time of my conversation with Panov, Bulgaria was not even in line with Gorbachev's Soviet Union. Bulgarians were watching Glasnost-era Soviet television instead of their own which, at the time, was definitely not broadcasting in the spirit of Glasnost.


The explanation is simple. Zhivkov may have sincerely believed that the system needed to be smashed. He was an unusually-experienced politician, certainly not blind to the kind of serious flaws in the system of which Panov had spoken. Yet, his entire support base consisted of people whose positions and livelihoods would be in jeopardy if the system were smashed.


then why would Zhivkov not have sought support among those in the elite who, like Panov and the many other Communist officials in Bulgaria with whom I spoke, agreed that the system had to be smashed? Again, the explanation is simple. Within every power elite, there are conflicting ideas and forces. Every regime rests on deeply-rooted institutions, deeply-ingrained shared habits and powerful interests. Rulers remain in power if and only if they can maintain support among the elites that carry the weight of the regime. In every power system, there are frozen frameworks shaping the ways elites perceive reality, there is always some balance of power, spontaneously and jealously guarded by those having stakes in the system.


Why then couldn't Zhivkov have sought support from outside the power system to help smash it? Again, the answer is simple. Had suspicion begun to spread within Zhivkov's support base that he was abandoning them, he would likely have met a fate similar to that of Mikhail Gorbachev after the August 1991 Putsch. And Gorbachev had not moved recklessly. He had moved cautiously over a period of four years. In fact, much of the support he had hoped to attract through his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika began to evaporate as supporters grew impatient with the slow pace of his reforms. At least as importantly, many of those hostile to the Soviet regime wanted too get rid of all Communists, including reform Communists like Gorbachev and his political allies.


In 1987 Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania, daughter of Boleslaw Bierut, often dubbed the "Polish Stalin," a professor of sociology, invited me to her home. Her father had been an NKVD agent, a hard-line Stalinist, and President of Poland during its Stalinist period. On the bus, I said to her: "You knew the top leadership of the Communist Party. What were they like as people?" "They were some of the sweetest, most gentle people you could possibly imagine," she replied. How could this be? Was she lying? In denial? I don't think so. It was all too clear and most tragic. They were dedicated Communists, progressive idealists who had collaborated enthusiastically with Soviet agencies. First, in the struggle against Naziism, then for social justice in Poland. The Soviet Union of Stalin was their ally, to whose cause they were bonded during a struggle they deeply believed in. With their high ideals and naivete, they landed in positions of responsibility--in iron cages, where they became instruments of Stalin's brutal regime.


Similarly, Gustav Husak, former Czechoslovak President and General Secretary of the Communist Party, was unaware of the iron cage he was walking into in 1968. Husak had a simples strategy when he decided to cooperate with the Soviets after the August 1968 invasion. He would demonstrate to the Soviet leadership that he understood and sympathized with their concerns, and was even willing to use tough "administrative measures" to bring the situation under control. Once he gained the trust of the Soviet leadership, so he thought, they would surely allow him to continue the process of reform launched during the Prague Spring. After all, the reforms were just common sense, and most of them were being implemented throughout the Soviet Bloc, including in the Soviet Union itself. Husak's strategy appeared to make eminent sense. In fact, it looked like a rerun of the strategy used so successfully by Hungarian Communist Party leader, Janos Kadar after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Kadar used severe repressive measure to crush the rebellion. Then, two years after the invasion, he declared "Whoever is not against us is with us," and launched Hungary on the most successful path of reform of any of the countries in the Soviet Bloc. What Husak did not realize was that, in sharp contrast to Kadar in Hungary, there was no middle ground to occupy after the invasion. One was either with the occupiers or with the people. By throwing his lot in with the occupiers, Husak walked into an iron cage from which he was never able to exit.


I am not a Middle East specialist, and don't know much about the specifics of Bashar Al-Assad's Iron Cage, but it is clear that he is locked inside one. Bashar never wanted to go into politics. He is a British-trained physician, compelled to go into politics because his brother, the original heir apparent, died. A member of the Assad family had to replace his father in order to maintain the Assad regime formula. An Assad in power was only way the various factions within the Syrian elite could be sure that the regime formula and balance of forces to which they were accustomed would be maintained. Bashar may well have started out as the kind of leader to which King Abdullah alluded, unfortunately, that was not to be his fate.

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