Summer Reading: The Dictator’s Handbook, A Practical Manual for the Aspiring Tyrant

In a December 2011 article in NPR, Alan Greenblatt writes that 2011 has been a rough year for dictators pointing out that several of the world’s longest-serving autocrats have either died or been ousted from power: North Korea’s Kim Jong Il who died from heart failure and the leaders ousted in the Arab Spring: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.

The piece also quotes Nicolas van de Walle, a government professor at Cornell University saying, “It’s not only that there are fewer dictators, but there are virtually no dictators left who don’t talk the language of democracy and turnover of executive power.”

He is absolutely right, of course. That’s right out of Chapter 10 of the The Dictator’s Handbook, A Practical Manual for the Aspiring Tyrant by Randall Wood and Carmine DeLuca. The chapter includes a helpful section on Working with the Foreign Diplomatic Community, specifically on how to deploy the charm offensive.

For example, the Handbook suggests employing “the right talk”:

“Wax eloquent about democracy, transparency, decentralization, development, control of corruption, and accountability. This has worked astonishingly well for leaders who went on to practice none of those philosophies: Laurent Kabila (Congo), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia), and Isaias Afawerki (Eritrea). Bill Clinton lauded these men as the “new generation of leaders” in the “African Renaissance” sweeping the nation.[26] They generally turned out to be nothing of the sort, and several of them figure prominently in this book.”

Secretary Clinton meets with President Yoweri Museveni who has been President of Uganda since 26 January 1986. He was re-elected on 20 February 2011 making him
the fifth longest serving African leader.
(Photo from August 2012 Visit via State Department)

Another suggestion is to cultivate “the right look”:

“It was true about getting put into power and remains true while you are in power; it’s true furthermore when it comes to getting funding: Westerners have a propensity for funding and supporting those leaders they feel are most like themselves. And they adore English-speaking technocrats with degrees from Western universities. If you have carefully groomed yourself on the way to power with the right accent (a British accent is well worth the trouble learning), the right look, and the right “persona,” you may be richly rewarded.”

Here is one who is not from Africa and has only been in power since 2004, but an English-speaking somebody the western world absolutely adores despite allegations of election fraud:

President George W. Bush and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai shake hands after cutting the ceremonial ribbon, Wednesday, March 1, 2006, to dedicate the new U.S. Embassy Building in Kabul, Afghanistan.
White House Photo by Eric Draper

But it’s not enough to have the “right talk” and the “right look” alone.  The aspiring dictator must also have the “right political philosophy” according to the Handbook:

It’s important to know your audience when you speak, as the right words can make the cash register go ‘cha-ching!’ During World War II, when the Allies were looking for support in Africa, several African leaders managed to persuade the West they were staunchly anti-Communist even as they erected neo-communist regimes at home. Likewise, when George W. Bush announced the American ‘war on terror,’ many African leaders otherwise well-skilled in the arts of terrorism where their own people were concerned – from Charles Taylor (Liberia) to Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Omar al Bashir (Sudan) – came forward with wars against terror of their own. And they were well-funded by the Americans for it. Charles Taylor, to his (ahem) credit, even established an “anti-terrorist” unit that went on to terrorize the Liberians, and the warlords of Mogadishu formed a “Coalition Against Terrorism” in 2006, which the CIA amazingly agreed to fund.[26]

President Karimov greets General Petraeus at Oksaroy during the general’s visit to Tashkent on 08/18/2009. President Karimov is the first and only President of Uzbekistan, serving since 1990.
(US Embassy photo)

And last but not the least, the Handbook recommends “the right spouse”:

“One point in Assad’s favor was his charismatic and lovely wife Asma, raised in London and of course perfectly fluent in English. She became the “face” of what Westerners hoped was a more pro-West Syria. If you yourself are not the Western educated, fluent English speaker Western governments adore so much, it is a smart idea to marry one. She may have been the perfect spouse for other reasons as well, as she was mostly content to focus on shopping for luxury goods while her husband oversaw the extended slaughter of thousands of Syrians in 2011–2012.[102]”

The most apt part is probably what the authors call “cooperation diplomacy” with the following suggestion to all aspiring dictators:

“Couch all your relations with countries otherwise inclined to press you for reforms, in the language of “cooperation” and “dialogue.” Both are politically neutral, infinite, and respectful. Neither commits you to do anything you don’t want to do, and neither insists on reform. Dialogue can go forever, lead to nothing, and keep the money flowing.”

Randall Wood is an engineer and co-author of two books, Moon Nicaragua (a best-selling travel guidebook to Nicaragua) and Living Abroad in Nicaragua. He works for an aid agency and currently lives with his family in Senegal. He previously worked for  USAID, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Carmine DeLuca, a writer and history enthusiast, has long cultivated an interest in the authoritarians of every stripe. In part this fascination stems from his personal life – a Bonapartist father, an aunt named after the Battle of Adowa, and a grandfather and great uncle in Mussolini’s army.

I asked Randy what made him write this book.  He told me that living overseas and realizing that dictators are copying each other’s move, it started for him with a simple question — “if those douchebags are all working off the same instruction manual, what must it look like?”

And The Dictator’s Handbook, A Practical Manual for the Aspiring Tyrant was born (it took another three years of work, after his gov work “and when the kids were in bed (i.e. 8PM to 1AM on two cups of coffee)” before the book was published.  The handbook is extensive at 320 pages long, including 500 bibliographic references, 100 footnotes, and a full index. It is available both a paperback and an ebook.

You can check out and buy the book at:

Randy’s website is:

The book also has an accompanying blog here:

Indeed, the Dictator’s Handbook gives you a road map to tyranny, step by step. Chapters include Getting to Power, The Culture of Fear, Building Your Financial Empire, Managing Your Legacy and more.   The chapter on Strategies of Suppression: Dealing with Enemies is surprisingly quite familiar particularly if you have lived in third world countries plundered infamously so by dictators.

Domani Spero