Can Exile Solve the Saddam Problem?

We’ve been getting all these trial balloons, so maybe there’s a serious effort underway. (Or maybe not.) A December 29 Associated Press story that ran in numerous newspapers and Web sites around the world, says that Arab leaders "are considering the possibility of pressing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to step down and go into exile. However, the unidentified "diplomats said the idea has not yet coalesced, and it would be useless to make such an offer until Saddam believes he has no other option."

Sabah Salman, who was Saddam’s press secretary during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and then defected after the 1991 Gulf War, says he doubts that Saddam would ever bow out willingly. In 1982, he says, when a top aide suggested that he accept a demand from the late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini to step down "for tactical reasons to test Khomeini’s seriousness," the minister was taken into the next room and shot.

That doesn’t sound like somebody who would step down, even if offered a villa on the French Riviera. On the other hand, it has been more than 20 years and two long wars since 1982. And this is a person who seems to value his personal hide; he is said, after all, to sleep in a different place every night, to take numerous steps to make sure his whereabouts at potentially vulnerable times are known only to the most reliable guardians, and to have several body doubles to confuse any would-be assassin.

Perhaps that’s mainly because he has convinced himself, as so many Maximum Leaders have, that he personally is essential to the future of the beloved country over which he exercises benevolent guardianship, and he’s only doing it for the country. But I suspect there’s something personal involved as well. This is not a person who anticipates death with anything resembling pleasure or even resignation. If he became convinced that his death was inevitable, there’s just a chance that he might accept exile.


What’s interesting is that the Saddam-in-exile story seems to have a certain amount of "legs." A Jan. 3 article in India’s Mid-Day has State Department spokesman Richard Boucher saying exile "is certainly an option he should consider," while doubting that he would.

South Africa’s Sunday Times had a piece on Sunday that went into more detail, mentioning possible feelers put out to Russia, Belarus, Egypt, Libya and Mauritania as potential havens. It also reported that on Friday Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis described the idea of exile for Saddam as "viable."

There have been other hints that exile for Saddam would be a way out of this mess. Back in September USA Today ran a story about an overture to Saddam in August, from the foreign minister of Qatar, to Saddam on the possibility of exile, a suggestion Saddam reportedly rebuffed.

In October, when presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer made his possibly-a-gaffe comment about how cheap a bullet would be as a way of dealing with Saddam, some of the follow-up stories had him discussing exile as a possible option. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has mentioned exile as a possibility in the past.


So is there a chance that Saddam would go into exile? Would that satisfy the U.S. desire for "regime-change?" That’s far from a certainty, although remotely possible. So far most of the "three-minute-hate" propaganda has been focused on Saddam personally, the earlier Bushies after 1991 hoped the military would take over and the current crop might well be satisfied with any leadership group that was pliable when it came to oil, for all its posturing about its pure-hearted devotion to making Iraq a model democracy.

However, allowing Saddam to take whatever ill-gotten gains he might be able to gather and head into exile without too much hassle, would be contrary to official U.S. policy, according to an anonymous State Department official quoted in the USA Today story. However, the official did say "it’s a scenario we have to come to terms with." It would take some intellectual gyrations to accept exile after having officially rejected it, but that’s one mission I suspect our State Department bureaucrats could accomplish.

But finding a justification for a policy U-turn would not be the only potential complication (beyond the obvious one that Saddam is enough of a megalomaniac, enough identified with his current position of power that he wouldn’t go for it). There could be a problem finding a suitable place for him to go. Presumably the countries mentioned above were mentioned because there’s at least a chance they would consent and some feelers have been extended. But there can be a chasm between preliminary feelers and a done deal.

There could be serious security considerations. Even a Saddam without formal power would have enemies who might love to knock him off. Few countries would want to invite somebody who would be a target of thugs and terrorists – and they might be even more concerned if he brought along a coterie of thugs to provide enough security that he might feel safe. A Saddam protected by ruthless-enough bodyguards might well make the rest of the country – or at least people within about a 20-mile radius of the Saddam compound – feel considerably less safe.


Then there’s the question of whether Saddam could be immunized from possible international of special tribunal court action – or even from zealous local prosecutors, like some in Holland who seek to use their legal systems to make bold and brash statements about enforcing respect for human rights. Unless Saddam can be reasonably assured that he’s not going to face an inquisition and the possibility of life in prison as a result of agreeing to exile, he might well dismiss the idea out of hand.

It might be virtually impossible for the United States or even the United Nations to offer ironclad assurances on that account. The International Criminal Court is open to actions demanded by individuals or organizations, not just its own functionaries and official governments.

There are local prosecutors who might seek to grandstand – or who sincerely believe that justice will not be served until dictators like Saddam Hussein face at least the possibility of some kind of judicial proceedings for their crimes. Some of these people might not only be beyond the control of the United States, they might take a certain delight in embarrassing the United States, in demonstrating that its powers are not infinite and its assurances are worth nothing.

Those who insisted on detaining Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet on a trip to Britain, who insisted on bringing Serbia’s Milosevic before something remotely resembling a trial, or who believed that an international criminal court would be just a dandy way to deal with injustice that crosses or defies borders, may have done us a disservice. Because of the precedents and examples they are setting they just might have made it more difficult to get nasty dictators out of power.


Although it requires a certain willingness to wink at strict legal standards, and even to forego the kind of punishment many would view as indispensable to justice being done, however, exiling dictators might well be among the most practical way of getting nasty rulers away from the kind of harm they can do with their hands on the levers of power. The downside – that a thoroughly nasty ruler will be spared punishment and might even live out his life in luxury – should be balanced against the upside – that he won’t be able to impose his nastiness on the people he has misruled anymore. If you look at the sheer human misery many of these monsters inflict, it shouldn’t be too difficult to swallow hard and calculate that less harm will be done by letting these nasties retire.

In recent times Idi Amin, reportedly responsible for 300,000 deaths in Uganda, fled to Saudi Arabia, where he has lived large, in 1979. It’s disgusting – and it’s difficult to argue that Uganda is especially well ruled these days. But it’s a less brutal place.

Former Haitian dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier left for France in 1986. Again, the country has been misruled, though somewhat less systematically brutalized, since his departure. And Duvalier has been almost forgotten.

Hissene Habre of Chad has lived in Senegal since 1990, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former butcher of Ethiopia, fled to Zimbabwe (where he has survived an assassination attempt) in 1991. The aging Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay fled to Brazil after a 1989 coup, and has lived there relatively quietly ever since.

One must acknowledge that there are reasons for a certain amount of outrage or disgust at butchers of humans being able to live out their days quietly. But the idea of exiling dictators, hardly a new one, might just be the most effective way to get them out of power.

If I were a super-rich philanthropist with an interest in international affairs – someone like George Soros or Ted Turner – I might just consider establishing a luxurious, hyper-secure Club Med for dictators that would offer some of the world’s political thugs a lifetime of luxurious leisure, with plenty of educational and recreational opportunities, in exchange for giving up power. Maybe a chain of them. There are certainly plenty of rulers in the world whose capacity to do harm might be minimized through such arrangements. Of course, they would probably be replaced by other thugs, but there are degrees of thuggery, terrorism and brutality – and an ongoing facility might make it easier for the next bosses to be term-limited out a bit sooner.

All that having been said, I think the chances that Saddam Hussein would agree to exile, sparing his country and the rest of the world a war that would undoubtedly kill a lot of people and destroy a lot of valuable property and resources, are pretty slim. Even if he did accept exile, the U.S. war machine might be so ready for action that we would have a war anyway. But there’s no law against hoping – at least not yet.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).