Getting rid of despots - England style

If Arab revolutionaries want to hasten the departure of their despots, they need to stop looking at Turkey and examine English history, says Stephen Walt, who - as professor of international relations at Harvard - knows a thing or two about world politics.

"...a central issue is the familiar problem of credible commitment. In order to convince unpopular rulers to leave power (or at least to give up a lot of their current privileges), you have to convince them that they are not signing their own death warrants or ensuring their own financial ruin"

(This is also true in Pakistan, where you get into politics to protect the family business, and you stay in power to prevent it being destroyed by your enemies.)

Turkey's sideling of its former military kingpins might look all rosey, says Walt, but sacking men in uniform all over the place and putting generals in prison without trial is making their peers across the Middle East think twice about stepping down.

The sensible way to do this, Walt says over at Foreign Policy's Cable, is taking their power away slowly, the same sort of thing that happened to the English aristocracy.

"Beginning in the early 19th century, the gradual expansion of the franchise and the rise of the middle class gradually led to a curtailing of noble privilege and political power. But the aristocrats weren't dragged to guillotine or have their estates confiscated, they just got a little weaker and a little less rich, on average, with each successive generation. But this ensured that the nobility didn't try to dig in its heels and stop the process completely, which would have created a far greater risk of a major explosion."

Apart from the issue of time, which Walt acknowledges, the English experience more likely came about through a happy coincidence rather than someone's grand multi-generational plan. Still he has a point.