- Bashir Assad and Kim Jong-un will never step down. Their alternative to staying in power is life in a cage or execution.
- Western nations have largely enforced a shortsighted policy of bringing former dictators to justice. There is no benevolent dictatorship, criminality goes with the territory.
- Current dictators know that the consequences of opening their societies to more freedom or stepping down will result in punishment and/or death for them.
- The United States and the rest of the world needs to rethink this pattern. While the optics of dictators retiring with their ill-gotten wealth to lifestyles of opulence are bad, the reality of people continuing to be killed and oppressed by their regimes are much worse.
Humanity will have to decide if it is more important that people currently ruled by dictators are given the opportunity to live in peace and freedom, or alternatively, that their leaders be brought to justice. It seems that the reality is either one or the other, either peace or justice. From a foreign policy standpoint, western nations have held that both can be accomplished, though obviously the policy has proved to be dangerously and lethally wrong. The most recent example is the chaos in Syria. Psychologists could study the case of Bashir al-Assad and possibly find a dormant darkness that resides in all of us, only needing the precise circumstances to be manifested.
Bashir Assad was a medical doctor furthering his capabilities by studying ophthalmology in London when his older brother died. As the next in line, Bashir Assad was ordered back to Damascus for a crash course in the family business of autocracy, which of course had nothing to do with Assad’s chosen profession of medicine. Assad and his English born and King’s College educated wife was once seen as possible reformers who would open the middle east to western liberty. Intercepted emails in 2012 indicate they are in a situation where the only way their personal survival is a possibility is by building one atrocity on the last. There is more complexity than that to the Syrian situation with ISIS fighters still in hiding, Iranian and Russian interests intersecting, and the inevitable bloody power vacuum should Assad abruptly be removed. However, the main thing that keeps the Assad’s desperately gripping power is the prospect of either living in a cage or swinging at the end of a rope. The Assad’s have no where to go, other than the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and that is where the fuel for the Syrian conflagration comes from. Because the Assad’s have no desirable way out, the gas keeps pouring on the proverbial fire. Mrs. Assad shopping for shoes while Bashir sits on the terrace of their Paris home sipping coffee while catching up on the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine are not currently retirement options for the Assad’s. Thus death, disease, and suffering continue in Syria.
I do not mean to insinuate that Bashir Assad is some sort of misunderstood victim, instead I use the above as an example of how the international community has painted itself into a corner. Assad won’t go, and he can’t safely be removed. Assad’s immediate departure would be destabilizing. The Syrian civil war would escalate with more Russian and Iranian involvement, the ISIS caliphate would reemerge in the power vacuum that would develop, and Turkey (a NATO member) would become a bigger part of the conflict, at a minimum targeting the Kurds. Assad’s departure at this time would just make a bloody civil war longer, bloodier, and complicate things amongst already conflicted third parties. The time is not now, but when the conflict is stabilized there will need to be regime change in Syria. When the time comes to change the Syrian government, the Assad’s will not go willingly into their cages at The Hague. It will be almost impossible to remove the Assad’s without a great deal of additional death because of short sighted, yet nobly intended policies of the past. We need to reevaluate our current way of thinking, and question whether dealing with dictators swiftly and sternly is really the best long-term policy. It is important to clarify that this is about heads of state – not nonstate actors, terrorist, or tribal leaders.
The problem is that the monsters of today have memories of Slobodan Milosevic dying in a prison cell at The Hauge. These monsters also have memories of Romanian Premier Nicolae Ceausescu announcing reforms and the softening of policies only to meet the fate of a firing squad. These monsters have certainly not forgotten Muammar Gaddafi giving up his Weapons of Mass Destruction programs only to later be pulled out of a drain pipe and bayoneted. It is not speculation that the monsters currently operating on the world stage are keenly aware of the fate of past despots. Muammar Gaddafi’s ill-fated attempt to conform to international norms is one of the stated reasons why North Korea has developed and means to keep its nuclear weapons program.
Kim Jong-un, Bashir Assad, and other heads of state that became monsters, know there is no graceful exit from power. It is unfortunate that the international community has not and does not afford these murderous dictators an undeserved graceful exit. It would be in the interest of world peace, nuclear and chemical weapon nonproliferation, and the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives to give these monsters a very comfortable retirement. It should be reiterated the “retirement option” should not apply to nonstate actors like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Osama bin Laden, both are/were religious zealots deserving of a bullet in the head.
Perhaps it is unappealing to think of Kim Jong-un rubbing elbows with Prince Albert in Monte Carlo, cruising the Riviera on a super yacht, and living the rest of his days as a paparazzi hunted playboy. We may bristle at the thought of the Assad’s taking a late afternoon stroll through a picturesque Paris park. On a moral level it is repulsive. On a practical level it is a very small price to pay for peace and security. We need the dictators and monsters of today to know there is a graceful and face-saving exit, one of opulence funded by their ill-gotten gains. We don’t need to accept, celebrate, or even believe they are good people, we just need to see the big picture and play the long game. We need to resist the temptation to bring them to justice or facilitate assassinations; the ability to remove monstrous dictators from their capacity to kill and oppress in the future depends on it. If we leave these monsters no other option but to continue down the cataclysmic path they are currently on, the killing will only increase and the world will never change for the better.
Image: “ISLAND OF MISFIT DICTATORS” by Outstate.us is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 / A derivative from “Kim Jong-un – Caricature” (CC BY 2.0) by DonkeyHotey and “Kim Jong-un visiting Berlin.” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by driver Photographer and “Bashar al-Assad – Caricature” (CC BY 2.0) by DonkeyHotey and Bashar al-Assad in Russia” (CC BY 4.0) by Kremlin.ru AND “Bashar al-Assad” (CC BY 3.0 BR) by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom AND “The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi” (CC BY 3.0 BR) by Agência Brasil