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Why Didn’t Qaddafi Go Into Exile?

By Taylor Marvin

Over at The Monkey Cage,  UCSD School of International Relations and Pacific Studies* professor Barbara Walter has a short piece on how the ICC motivates threatened dictators to fight rather than risk prosecution. It’s worth quoting in full:

“One of the many puzzles surrounding Muammar Qaddafi was his refusal to go into exile. Once NATO intervened on behalf of the rebels and Tripoli fell, Qaddafi must have known that he would eventually lose the war and that this would mean death. Instead of leaving the country, he decided to stay.

Why? One surprising answer has to do with the International Criminal Court. It used to be that exile was an attractive long-term option for dictators to take. Rather than stay and fight, they could live their lives in wealth and comfort in beautiful and stable places such as Paris or the Bahamas.

This changed as more and more countries ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Now seeking asylum is no longer easy or particularly attractive. Dictators can try to convince countries such as France, Britain, Venezuela, Mexico or Spain to let them settle in their capital cities or along their coastlines. But since all have ratified Rome, moving there is tantamount to turning oneself in to be prosecuted for war crimes. Qaddafi could seek refuge in countries that have not yet ratified Rome, such as the United States or Cuba or Zimbabwe or Sudan or Saudi Arabia. But those countries are either unwilling to accept him (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) or unable to credibly commit to protecting him over time (Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan). How long could Qaddafi trust that the current regime in Cuba or Zimbabwe will remain in power to protect him?

There is evidence that Qaddafi considered different exile options as early as March of this year. And yet he stayed until his death last week. We will never know exactly what went through Qaddafi’s head in the last year of his life. Part of what drove him to fight to the end was almost certainly an exaggerated love of power and risk. But part of what drove him was also likely to be careful calculations about his alternatives. What Qaddafi’s behavior reveals is a potentially unexpected and unfortunate side-effect of an increasingly successful ICC. By limiting the options nasty dictators have to seek exile, it is increasingly forcing them to stay. And by forcing them to stay, it could, inadvertently, be encouraging war.”

This is a strong argument — obviously it doesn’t invalidate the idea of the ICC, but the possibility that the increasing risk of prosecution abroad could motivate threatened dictators to remain and fight is important. If the ICC matures into a durable criminal court that can promptly prosecute war criminals, we can expect future dictators to be less and less likely to surrender power voluntarily.

However, there’s another aspect of dictators’ evolving incentive scheme to consider. Let’s assume that threatened autocrats face four broad possible outcomes, which they value in the following order:

Stay, remain in power > Flee, comfortable exile > Flee, prosecution by the ICC >
Stay, imprisonment in home country/death

While most dictators would probably prefer to remain in power, whiling away your days as an exile in Paris is pretty good alternative. But if the threat of ICC prosecution (and, nearly as importantly, confiscation of the funds you’ve stashed in foreign bank accounts) makes a comfortable exile impossible, embattled dictators have a strong incentive to stay and attempt to outlast their opponents. However, this preference only makes sense if an autocrat battling a domestic opposition has some chance of winning.

Trial by the ICC isn’t that bad. It’s certainly humiliating, and the prospect of a lifetime jail sentence isn’t pleasant, but for most dictators it’s likely preferable to a violent death. Slobodan Milošević’s trial by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia dragged on for five years before his death in 2006, Charles Tayor’s trial at the ICC has been ongoing since 2007 and even a guilty verdict at the ICC is at worst a lifetime prison sentence, rather than execution. Of course, history is full of rulers who preferred death to the humiliation of being thrown out of power. But this is rare — while nearly all rulers would prefer to remain in office, for most dictators a trial in The Hauge is preferable to brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of their countrymen. As Dr. Walters points out, Qaddafi declined to flee Libya to avoid a criminal trial. But it’s important to note that he likely elected to stay because he believed that he had at least a chance of outlasting NATO’s will to fight and defeat the rebels, making resistance preferable to fleeing.

However, if threatened autocrats judge themselves to have little to no chance of even surviving an uprising, much less remaining in power, they’re more likely to flee even with the expectation that exile will end in a cell in The Hauge rather than a Spanish beach. Improving US military capabilities have made this least favorable outcome — death — more likely.

In the last few years the US military and intelligence establishment has become very proficient at targeting and killing specific individuals. 1986’s Operation El Dorado Canyon strike mission against Libya missed Qaddafi, and President Clinton’s 1998 cruise missile strike against Osama bin Laden failed to kill the terrorist leader. Similarly, the Bush Administration’s failure to promptly kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein demonstrated that despite the formidable combat capabilities of the US military, individuals could count on being able to evade US. This perception has likely changed. In the last year the United States has publicly killed bin Laden, Qaddafi and Anwar al-Awlaki and successfully targeted countless al-Qaeda leadership figures in Pakistan, demonstrating that improved US intelligence gathering and the widespread use of armed drones has significantly raised the United States’ ability to kill specific individuals.

This increased US lethality likely alters dictators’ incentives — yes, outlasting your opponents and staying in power would be nice, but a long trial in The Hauge looks a lot nicer when the alternative is being on the wrong end of a US drone strike. Of course, this logic only applies when an embattled dictator antagonized the US to the point that a military intervention is on the table; as Syria’s brutal repression of protestors has shown, this remains a high threshold. But as drone lethality continues to advance, the barriers to US targeted strikes against autocrats tempted to brutally repress democratic opposition could become less rigid. While the US government appears to be no longer interested in committing ground forces to foreign wars an appetite for targeted airstrikes remains, as America’s shadow wars in Yemen and Somalia demonstrate. If hanging on to power requires an autocrat to repress domestic opposition with sufficient brutality as to attract a US or NATO intervention effort, exile and subsequent prosecution is likely the more attractive choice for most dictators. While we can expect the emergence of the ICC as an effective prosecuting force to give dictators less incentive to flee into comfortable retirements rather than fight, in rare cases this incentive could be countered by the falling tactical barriers to targeted assassination.

*Full disclosure: I am employed by IR/PS.

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