LONDON - Even before Britain began to celebrate the fall of Muammar Gadhafi, as if it were Britain's own private victory, former Foreign Secretary David Owen recalled his brief moment as a supporting actor on the world stage at the end of the 1970s. Owen, who had urged Tanzania to invade Uganda and help topple Idi Amin, remembered fondly Saudi Arabia's decision to grant Amin asylum. If Amin had not had that option, Owen told The Independent over the weekend, Amin would have fought a life-and-death battle - his own and others.
Owen made the remarks while talking about Libya and Syria. Gadhafi's last days in power and the ostensibly ever-tightening stranglehold on Bashar Assad have reignited an old argument: Should mercy be shown to cruel tyrants, allowing them to seek asylum in another country? This would avoid more killing and destruction in tyrants' countries at the height of uprisings. But the issue is not a judicial one, despite the establishment of an international court as the ideological continuation of the trials of senior German and Japanese officials accused of war crimes during World War II.
Sometimes expediency translates into a proposal for a pardon. Saddam Hussein, in 1991 and more so in 2003, refused to retire to a vacation home - that is, assuming a country could have been found to host him, as Saudi Arabia did Amin. And the host country would not be able to fear the new rulers the way the Islamic regime in Iran was feared when the shah fled Tehran.
The formula for going into exile is simple. The ruler gives up the fight and the people who revolted against him, or the outside force that brought him down, gives up on punishing him severely. In fact, house arrest, or mansion arrest, will be imposed on him abroad. And those who were his victims or their relatives and friends will restrain themselves and not get back at him. The emotions of individuals will be canceled out by the good of the nation, which justifies reconciliation and the setting aside of settling scores. This was the case with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Nelson Mandela in South Africa after the collapse of apartheid.
As alluring as the idea might sound to Western ears, it isn't likely to succeed when tyrannical regimes fall. Tyrants, ostensibly, have it all, but they don't have a pension (or a tranquil spirit ). Only death will release them from their powerful office. The way down for self-appointed presidents is almost as difficult as the way up.
New rulers will never be free of the fear that the ousted leader remains a locus of power and is plotting from afar a counterrevolution and return to power. They will want to put a quick end to the matter. This is what happened in most revolutions in Arab countries. And one needn't be an Arab, as seen by the end of Nicolae Ceausescu, or even a tyrant. During World War II, after King Edward VIII was forced to abdicate, he was suspected of being a German sympathizer to such an extent that some feared the Germans would back him to retake the crown if they occupied the British Isles.
The establishment of a retired tyrants' club in some isolated spot like Devil's Island or placing them in protective disguise on foreign soil is impractical. Their successors will send assassins after them; they themselves will dream and plot incessantly to regain their lost power.
This is true not only of an individual ruler, but of a group, sect or tribe. Gadhafi's end might not deter Assad, it might spur him on to muster the Alawites, who know that his fall will be their fall. Anyone who hopes to see the same conclusion in Damascus as in Tripoli will have to write a different end to the story.
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