In my graduate class on Arab politics, we would often puzzle over decisions autocratic leaders have made that did not seem to make sense, either in moral or strategic terms. It was often tempting to take the intellectually lazy route and think they were simply crazy or stupid. In order to make the discussion more productive, the professor would suggest that we assume the leaders are at least as smart as ourselves.

In recent weeks, the only person convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing was released to Libyan soil, where he received a jubilant welcome organized by Libyan leader Col. Muammar el Kadafi. Unfortunately, many observers have dismissed Mr. Kadafi's behavior as his "usual mischief-making," as if the capricious and enigmatic behavior were just an inexplicable character flaw.

The truth is that Mr. Kadafi, who celebrates 40 years in power today, may be better understood as the careful orchestrator of confusion. Indeed, his attempt to sow chaos and discontent on the world stage may be a key to understanding how he has managed to outlast nearly every other head of state in the world.

Mr. Kadafi's maneuvering is best understood in the context of the dangerous, often fatal stakes of political leadership in Libya (and, it should be said, in many other parts of the developing world). Civil society institutions are weak, and the state has not divorced itself from intruding into almost every area of civic life. Mr. Kadafi, for his part, has crushed at least two dozen coup attempts against his regime.

If this world sounds a little like anarchy, it may be for good reason. In his analysis of Mr. Kadafi's Libya, historian Henry Christman, who wrote the introduction to the English translation of Mr. Kadafi's infamous "Green Book," draws a philosophical connection between the "people's committees" found throughout modern Libya and the "associations" talked about by pro-anarchists in previous centuries.

The gains to be made in a state of anarchy may not be readily apparent, especially since anarchy as a political theory is more often the subject of ridicule than serious study. But a growing number of political scientists have taken another look and sought to explain why anarchism would still appeal to leaders like Mr. Kadafi.

The answer of two of these political scientists, Patrick Chabal of the University of London and Jean-Pascal Daloz of the Center for African Studies in Bordeaux, France, has been widely discussed among African experts for being both concise and insightful. Put simply, disorder pays better. If you are in Mr. Kadafi's shoes, at the gambling table with 44 billion barrels of oil and the nearly constant noises of coup-plotters (either real or imagined) at the door, democracy's checks and balances do not look like a good bet.

Instead, Mr. Kadafi has placed his money on maintaining legitimacy at home through a combination of prestige-building and wealth creation. He still gets mileage out of denouncing the colonial-era misdeeds of foreigners. For their part, many Libyans expect Mr. Kadafi to take every opportunity to poke Western powers in the eye.

Mr. Kadafi's fortune, formed at first by expropriating Italian and Jewish businesses and then from oil revenues, may seem like a strange basis on which to claim legitimacy. But as Mr. Chabal and Mr. Daloz point out, "Ostentation is the widespread expectation of the populace [of African countries]."

The authors may paint an unfairly broad stroke, but Libyans themselves have a proverb that illustrates their perceived pitfalls of poverty: If your pocket gets empty, your faults will be many. Through his carefully crafted cult of personality and repression, Mr. Kadafi - the son of nomads - has exploited the cultural link between the notions of wealth and legitimacy.

There is a much-needed discussion to be had about Abdel Baset al-Megrahi's release and the future of the Libyan regime. But too often the conversation seems to assume that Mr. Kadafi's words and deeds are irrational simply because they may be morally reprehensible. One need not be cynical or apologetic to say that after 40 years of provocation and tyranny, the man is smarter than he is often made out to be. Or as my professor would put it, at least as smart as you and me.

Daniel Morris holds a master's degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad