What Happens To An Ousted Dictator?

Robert Siegel talks with Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor and columnist at The Washington Post. He looks at what's happened to other autocrats of the past who've fallen from power — and what that tells us about what might happen to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Defeated dictators meet with a variety of ends. Hitler killed himself. Mussolini was killed by partisans and hanged from a Milan gas station for public display. Saddam Hussein was tried, convicted and executed by an Iraqi court. While Idi Amin, the notorious butcher of Uganda, lived out his days in exile in Saudi Arabia. Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic spent his last five years as a war crimes defendant in The Hague. The Arab Spring offers a variety of examples of what befalls dictators.

And Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post, has written about the pluses and minuses of all of them and he joins us now from vacation. Thanks for joining us.

JACKSON DIEHL: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: With Moammar Gadhafi's future uncertain, first, what are the models that the Arab Spring offers for what happens to the dictator?

DIEHL: Well, what we've got so far is Ben Ali who was the dictator of Tunisia, headed off to exile in Saudi Arabia, who apparently with a hoard of gold to fund his time there. We've got Mubarak of Egypt, who's been put on trial already just a couple of months after being deposed and showed up in a cage in a Cairo courtroom earlier this month.

And we've got Saleh of Yemen, who has been taken off to Saudi Arabia and hospitalized and seems to be under a kind of form of house arrest or detention by the Saudis in another country. And now, Gadhafi, who is missing in action so far.

SIEGEL: Well, if you could speak for the best interests of the Libyan people and could figure out what the best thing to do with Moammar Gadhafi would be, what would you choose?

DIEHL: Well, you know, I think the easiest thing, if you look back at history, is when dictators disappear quietly, at best not violently. So the best thing for Libyans would be if actually he follows Ben Ali's fate and somehow turned up in a foreign country and was forgotten about for awhile while Libyans had a chance to put their affairs in order.

The problem we have in Libya is that's not probably going to be possible because Gadhafi is under indictment by the international criminal court. So any country where he appears, other than Libya, is going to be under enormous pressure to put him on a plane to The Hague. And so, I think it's unlikely that Gadhafi will be able to find another country to take him, even if he could get out of the country at this point.

SIEGEL: There are conflicting impulses here. On the one hand, the billions that Gadhafi controlled, the new regime will want to get control of very quickly. On the other hand, there are old scores to settle and there are people whose parents and brothers were imprisoned by Gadhafi and want some sense of closure about the old regime.

DIEHL: Yeah, and I think - and there's real dangers involved is in trying to settle the scores, because it's not just a matter of Gadhafi himself. It's also his tribe, the people who support him of whom there are some in Libya. And you don't want to create a situation that is polarizing in an environment where you're trying to set up a new regime almost entirely from scratch, as the Libyans are doing.

Which is why I think that the best approach really is the one that the Latin American countries and South Africa followed in their turn, which is to have a thorough investigation of all crimes, to have a truth commission, to make reparations to victims, but on the whole to avoid prosecutions of the leaders and the former regime in the short term.

SIEGEL: Although as you wrote several weeks ago, even in some of those cases, what seemed to be the understanding of what came out of the investigation of the past broke down over time.

DIEHL: It did. I mean, eventually in Chile, there was a prosecution of Pinochet at the very end of his life. There were prosecutions of the Argentine generals 20 years after democracy came into power. But of course, by that time, you had stable societies and stable democratic regimes that could carry out those prosecutions without destabilizing the country.

I think the problem you have now in Egypt, for example, is that the trial of Mubarak risks polarizing the country right before the first democratic election they've had almost ever. The trial and execution of Saddam Hussein contributed to the sectarian war in that country, because it came too quickly and was done too poorly. So I think the Libyans have to be very careful if they capture Gadhafi alive, about doing something that would simply undermine the more important task of building a democracy there.

SIEGEL: Well, Jackson Diehl, thanks a lot for talking with us.

DIEHL: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: So Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.