Dictators are supposed to be dumb, or at least crazy. Moammar Gadhafi was a ranting lunatic with a goofy fashion sense. Kim Jong Il had a weird hairstyle and a penchant for surreal sloganeering.
But these caricatures -- for that is what they are -- actually tend to obscure some unpleasant facts about modern life. Gadhafi reigned for 41 years in a country where fractiousness and rivalry were the order of the day in the era that preceded him.
Kim Jong Il died in his bed after ruling North Korea for 17 years -- despite policies that condemned his country to humiliating poverty even while its neighbors rose to new heights of prosperity.
They were evil, all right. But you can't call them dumb. Measured by their own criteria, they were actually pretty successful.
This is something that we'd be advised to keep in mind if we're going to help the forces of freedom to prevail in the world. And this, indeed, is one of the lessons of Will Dobson's fascinating new book, "The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy."
Dobson explores five current authoritarian regimes and their strategies for maintaining control. He interviews Chinese Communist Party members and Russian dissidents. He follows Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim on a frenetic day of campaigning that dramatizes the challenges of organizing a unified opposition in a country riven by ethnic divides.
In Venezuela, he records a memorable encounter with a once high-ranking ally of Hugo Chavez now doing time in jail -- a striking testimony to the capriciousness (or, perhaps, ruthless flexibility) of the regime. And even though much of his reporting from Egypt predates the fall of the Mubarak regime, his sharp analysis of the disposition of forces there is as illuminating as many of the accounts that have come out since the revolution.
The key message that emerges is that today's autocrats have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. In many cases, Dobson writes, they understand that it's in their interest to observe the appearance of democratic norms even while they're subverting them.
Chavez, for example, loves holding elections, and on election day you can pretty much vote for whom you want. That most Venezuelans end up voting for the president reflects the enormous effort he has put into manipulating the media, the courts and the bureaucracy every other day of the year. It could well be that only nature, in the form of the cancer now ravaging the leader's body, is capable of putting an end to chavismo.
Some of Dobson's most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The communists there, he concludes, are the least complacent of today's modern authoritarians. They've devoted intense study to the collapse of previous dictatorial regimes, from Ceausescu to Suharto, and they've worked hard to draw corresponding lessons -- so far with remarkable success.
As Dobson points out, most observers in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989 would have been shocked to learn that the Communist Party is not only still in power today, but thriving.
"The Chinese Communist Party understands what its vulnerabilities are," Dobson told me recently. "No one needs to lecture that government on what they need to worry about at night." (Hint: Corruption and inequality lead the list.)
Despite his cold-eyed assessment of the relative maneuverability of today's undemocratic regimes, Dobson firmly believes that the forces of democracy are in the ascendance. The rapid spread of information is making it harder for governments to concentrate power, thus chipping away at the very essence of authoritarianism.
"The Arab Spring is just a blink," he says. "The tide has clearly been in the direction of freedom and pluralistic societies."
He might well be right -- but for the moment, at least, there are plenty of dictators to go around. And they're still learning.