Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams maintains an interesting blog – he tends to throw out a lot of crazy ideas, but does so with an eye towards stimulating discussion and critical thinking. While watching the Arab Spring, I have frequently been reminded of a prescient article he wrote in 2008:
The problem with being a tyrannical dictator is that there is no career path and no practical way to retire. If another dictator takes over, the first item on his agenda is turning your head into a bird feeder for his guest house. If democracy breaks out, sooner or later the mob will want to execute you for crimes against humanity. As a tyrant, your only rational strategy is continued brutal suppression of your peeps. That’s a lot of work for the tyrant, and no fun for the peeps.
So far, the Arab Spring has only proven to dictators that they must hold on to power at all costs – in both Libya and Egypt, departure from power meant only death and imprisonment for the ousted leaders.
That said, Adams offers an interesting solution:
What the world needs is a program that allows graceful retirement for tyrants, so they have some incentive to step aside. Justice would never be served, but it would be best for the country.
The specifics of Adams’ plan are pretty cushy for the dictator (immunity, they get to keep their ill gotten gains, international protection, etc.), so I disagree with him on that front, but agrre in principle that the international community needs to be open to the idea that occasionally you need to let the bad guy get away in order to prevent even worse blood shed – as long as the bad guy stays out of power after they’re gone.
The problem with this plan, of course, is the potential for moral hazard - if they have a guaranteed landing zone, the dictator can be as brutal as he likes, and then take the get-out-of-jail-free card if things start to go bad. I’m not sure what the solution to that problem is – there has to a cut-off at some level of evil-ness in order to encourage dictators to step down earlier rather than later: Hitler can’t just give up after the Battle of the Bulge and expect immunity because he’s stepped down.
We have seen the “dictator retirement” to a limited extent in Tunisia, where Ben Ali took refuge in Saudi Arabia, and are seeing it unfold as Yemen’s Abdullah Saleh is looking for a place to land after leaving power. The latest is that he may end up settling in Abu Dhabi. He has sought medical treatment in the US, which the White House is still considering – I would urge the White House to consider what options they are leaving for other would-be FORMER dictators.