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A Dictator's Choice: Cushy Exile Or Go Underground

Why didn't Moammar Gadhafi choose a comfortable retirement in exile when he had the chance?

It's an age-old question for faltering dictators. When some are losing their grip on power, they are pragmatic and look for a cushy home abroad rather than face the wrath of their angry compatriots.

Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first Arab leader to fall this year, slipped away to Saudi Arabia on a plane in January. There were rumors that he took suitcases full of cash and gold. After running Tunisia for nearly a quarter-century, he can now expect to lead a quiet life in Saudi Arabia for years to come.

There's a healthy dose of megalomania in these guys. If I had to find one common thread, it's a profound and fundamental miscalculation that the end is near.

In contrast, Gadhafi showed absolutely no interest in fleeing abroad during the six months that elapsed between the start of the Libyan uprising in February until Tuesday, the day the rebels stormed into his compound in Tripoli.

For months, the rebels encouraged Gadhafi to leave, and it seemed he would have had relatively little trouble finding a new home. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez was often mentioned as a possible host.

Now Gadhafi is presumed to be in hiding in Libya, and the rebels have put a bounty out on him. If captured, he is likely to be prosecuted at home or abroad.

Personality Cults

Absolute power, it seems, not only corrupts — it can also confuse.


"There's a healthy dose of megalomania in these guys," John Norris, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress, says of dictators who refuse to surrender power. "If I had to find one common thread, it's a profound and fundamental miscalculation that the end is near."

Dictators who rule unchallenged for decades — like Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein — have the hardest time accepting the fact that it's time to leave, says Natasha Ezrow, a lecturer in government at the University of Essex and author of two books about dictators.

They hold all power themselves, seeking to "coup-proof" their regimes by weakening institutions and barring people with expertise or authority from challenging them.

"All dictators want to cling to power, but only a very small subset are able to do so," Ezrow says. "Within this subset, there are a select few that have become delusional after years of being in power and surrounding themselves with sycophants and 'yes' men."

Some of these dictators lose the wherewithal to keep their cronies happy and are forced to resign or flee, such as Idi Amin of Uganda and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.

Hussein and Gadhafi each had enough resources to buy the continuing loyalty of the "support groups" that had kept them in power, Ezrow says.

"There is still a small group of supporters of Gadhafi who are telling him what he wants to hear," she says, "feeding into his delusional fantasies of being the only person who can rule Libya, and that all the events and conquests of the rebels aren't really happening."

Why Choose A Spider Hole?

Going underground seems a poor option. Think of Saddam Hussein, arrested in a spider hole eight months after his statue was toppled in Baghdad. He was then put on trial, subsequently convicted and then hanged.

Still, many dictators continue to believe they'll be able to stage a comeback and return triumphantly.

Many dictators seem to believe they can start the rebuilding process even while they're still being hunted down.

"Gadhafi himself, in his own mind, probably does see everything as a tactical retreat," says Jack Goldstone, director of the George Mason University Center for Global Policy. "Dictators find it stunning and hard to believe when their whole countries turn against them."

After all, a lot of dictators came under attack but lived to fight — and rule — another day. Charles Taylor of Liberia, Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Gadhafi himself all had challenged international powers and gotten away with it. At least, for a while.

"They all tend to think that it will play out like it did the previous time," says Norris, of the Center for American Progress. "There will be a day or two of bombing and then it will all go away."

Fewer Options

In the past, dictators who were willing to get out of the way to prevent further bloodshed could expect to be welcomed to a seaside villa somewhere. Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who threw in the towel in 1986 and landed in France, is one of several examples.

But the calculus is changing. The advent of the International Criminal Court and a growing sense that brutal leaders should be called to account for their crimes has made it harder for dictators to walk away without repercussions.

Ex-dictators and leaders in host countries know that at some point there is likely to be pressure to hand over the former tyrant for prosecution.

"Gadhafi's behavior is partially explained by the ICC indictment of him," says Stephen Rademaker, a former assistant secretary of state who is now with the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm. "The notion that he could ever have peace of mind with the ICC hot on his heels is, to my mind, implausible."

A Less Plush Retirement

Not only does an ICC indictment guarantee an unsettling retirement, but living conditions for deposed dictators are no longer quite as grand as they once were, either.

International financial controls have become much tighter in the post-Sept. 11 world. So ex-rulers may be able to abscond with a few million, but it is much more difficult to get their hands on vast fortunes that may have been stolen and squirreled away.

"They have built up this view of themselves as the center of the universe," Norris says. "What to you or I seems like a perfectly reasonable choice — to take millions of dollars and a comfortable exile — seems to them like a slap in the face."

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