Getting Away With It

Why do some brutal dictators retire to comfortable lives in exile after they are deposed? Liberia’s Charles Taylor, cooling his heels on the Nigerian coast in Calabar, is only the most recent example. Baby Doc Duvalier still lives in France. Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner is kicking back in Brasilia. Augusto Pinochet abides at home in Peru. Until his recent death, Idi Amin dwelt in quiet luxury in Saudi Arabia. This isn’t justice, so what is it? It’s the cold calculation of the lesser evil, occasionally mixed with a dose of political ass-covering.

Taylor’s case is a good illustration of exile proving the lesser evil. Earlier this year, peace negotiations in the Liberian civil war were underway in Ghana. Taylor pulled out of them when he got wind of a secret indictment against him for war crimes, and the bloodshed continued for several more months. A dictator without a way out has nothing to lose, and sometimes the cost in innocent lives to bring him down is deemed too great, even if the alternative is giving him a life he doesn’t deserve.

On the political side, consider figures like Pinochet and Stroessner: both of them bloodthirsty, corrupt, and happy to support U.S. interests during the Cold War. It’s embarrassing enough that we kept these guys in power, making a mockery of democracy in the process. The possibility of having them talk openly about all the sordid details is enough to make keeping them quiet an attractive option for the government. Of course, without knowing what exactly it is that they could say, it’s hard to measure just how big this factor is in any particular case.

Easy exile isn’t a given for a set-upon dictator, however, and prospects will likely be much worse for the dictators of the future. Slobodan Milosevic isn’t basking in some Mediterranean haven—he’s on trial in The Hague. Pinochet got arrested in London in 1998, even though he did manage to squirm free in the end. Taylor’s situation is a little more ambiguous—his exile was negotiated with a number of groups, including the UN, but the UN is also supporting Sierre Leone’s attempts to bring him to trial for war crimes against them. I’m not even going to try to figure that one out, but it does suggest that his exile remains somewhat fluid. Future dictators looking for an easy way out may have the International Criminal Court to contend with, if it ever develops teeth.

Dictators in exile eat at society, year after year. No one could dispute that if only Saddam had accepted exile, things would be much better in Iraq now—far fewer deaths on both sides, less chance of Baathist insurgency. Sticking him in a villa somewhere, out of sight, out of mind, would have been a small price to pay. The exile option often makes good sense at the time, but as the immediate crisis fades into history, we’re left with the unresolved memory of past wrongs, and images like Idi Amin at the grocery store. It seems like a terrible affront to justice—which it certainly is. It’s never an easy choice, and I haven’t been able to come up with any blanket policies. Maybe the best route is to have it both ways—give the bastard a house in the country for now, but in a few years, come for him.

Sometimes exile isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Valentine Strasser doesn’t really qualify as a dictator, though he did seize power in Sierre Leone in 1992, at age 25. Four years later a bloodless coup sent him packing, and, young bloke that he was, the UN actually ponied up tuition for him to go to law school in London (!). He only lasted a year before he dropped out and hit the club scene. Sierre Leone continued to call for his return to stand trial for murder and torture, but nothing happened until the London media noted his presence; after trying to lay low in Gambia, Strasser had to return home. While he was never tried, he faced what is perhaps a worse fate—he’s now poor and living at home with his mother, trying not to get stoned. Ignominy isn’t justice, but it’s a start.