- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Getting Saddam Hussein to accept political exile as a way to avoid a new Middle East war would be an unlikely but not unprecedented outcome in the annals of modern diplomacy. The ancient concept of political banishment, a fate suffered by figures as diverse as Ovid and Lenin, Napoleon (twice) and the shah of Iran, has seen a healthy revival in recent times, with the United States often in the forefront.
Bernard Aronson, chief Latin American diplomat under President George H.W. Bush and now head of a Washington investment firm, told The Washington Times that the United States offered Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega the chance to flee to Spain in the days before the 1989 U.S. invasion.
"It was on the table for him, but Noriega thought we were bluffing," Mr. Aronson recalled.
The former Panamanian strongman now sits in a Florida jail cell serving a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking.
"There was never any formal policy in the first Bush administration on when exile could be offered, and I think that's because each case is sui generis," Mr. Aronson said. "You always have to weigh the consequences of using force against the consequences good and bad of making a deal."
The collapse of a string of European royal dynasties in the years after World War II created a stream of ex-kings and banished princesses living out their days on the Riviera or in well-guarded Egyptian villas.
Noriega turned down his deal, but leaders as diverse as Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu and Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos have known the bitter taste of banishment.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung spent years in exile in the United States during the period of military rule, only to return home and eventually win the country's highest office in 1997.
Despite a stream of official denials, rumors are rife that Iraq's neighbors are attempting to fashion an asylum deal for Saddam and his closest associates as a way to head off a U.S.-led military strike.
Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, Belarus, Cuba and North Korea have all been floated as potential soft landing grounds for Saddam, and several capitals have denied they have been asked to take the Iraqi leader in.
"These rumors are completely unfounded," the official Mauritanian news agency AMI reported last week. The West African country has had testy relations with Baghdad since the Iraqi ambassador was expelled for "subversive activities" in 1995.
Russia, which has close ties to many top Iraqi military leaders and has opposed a unilateral U.S. war in Iraq, has also been at the center of intense speculation that it was trying to fashion an asylum deal.
Saddam himself has not commented on the exile rumors and his aides say the talk is part of a psychological campaign by the United States and Britain to foment domestic unrest in Iraq.
Abbas Khalaf, Iraq's ambassador to Russia, called the exile talk "nonsense."
"Saddam Hussein will continue to defend his homeland. He is one of the leaders who will never leave his country and will fight to the last drop of blood," said Mr. Khalaf, who is considered very close to Saddam's inner circle.
But the tradition of exile voluntary or not is far from unknown in the region, where undemocratic regimes and violent changes in power are the norm.
Egypt, which many place at the center of the asylum speculation, has a long history of accepting ousted and disgraced leaders from its neighbors.
Saddam spent several years in exile in Cairo after taking part in a failed assassination attempt against Iraqi leader Abdel Karim Qassem in 1959, returning in 1963 when the Iraqi Ba'ath Party seized power.
Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that in 1991, Saddam himself had packed his suitcase and picked a place of exile Libya or Eritrea.
Saddam decided against fleeing because he felt he was not in danger, Mr. Mofaz told the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper in an interview published Friday.
This time around with several leaders calling on Saddam to leave Iraq and save the country from what could be a disastrous American invasion it is not known whether Baghdad's dictator has made similar arrangements, the Israeli defense minister said.
A string of deposed European monarchs, starting with Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III in 1946, settled in Egypt, as did the shah of Iran, the U.S.-backed Iranian leader who was overthrown when another exile Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini engineered an Islamic revolution from his Parisian apartment in 1979.
It was the Carter administration decision to allow the shah to come to the United States for cancer treatments that helped spark the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, setting off a 15-month hostage crisis that ended only as Ronald Reagan was taking office in early 1981.
The attractions of exile are obvious: The voluntary removal of an authoritarian leader minimizes bloodshed in countries where elections are impossible.
But the idea that an Idi Amin or a Jean-Claude Duvalier can escape any accounting for the crimes committed under their rule often rankles.
The State Department has confirmed that it is already working with private human rights groups compiling the briefs and assembling the evidence to charge Saddam and his inner circle with war crimes once he is driven from power.
Joe Stork is the Washington director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, which has called for the prosecution of top Iraqi officials for the use of chemical weapons against the country's Kurdish minority in the late 1980s.
"Our general position [on exile for Saddam] is that we won't stand in the way if somebody struck a deal in this situation that would stop a war," Mr. Stork said. "But we would be very concerned if any immunity deal were formalized by the international community, perhaps in a Security Council resolution.
"That would establish a very worrying principle for us."
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw last week gave the strongest indication yet that an immunity deal for Saddam was conceivable, if it cleared the way for a new, democratic regime in Baghdad.
"I think that given that kind of choice … people would swallow hard and think, 'Well, it is better to provide some degree of immunity if it meant we could resolve this peacefully and the Iraqi people could have put in a far better regime, which in due course could turn into a representative government,'" Mr. Straw told BBC Television in an interview.
Iraq's own exiles the opposition groups that are working closely with the Bush administration on Saddam's ouster have their own worries about an asylum deal, particularly one that leaves much of Saddam's power structure in place while removing the dictator himself.
Barham Salih, a top official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two Kurdish parties in the opposition coalition, said in an interview at The Washington Times: "Our greatest fear is that people declare victory too soon. The problem is not just Saddam, it's the political situation in Iraq that breeds dictatorships."
Mr Aronson agreed.
"Something we always had to weigh in the balance was what was left behind after the leader went," he said. "If Noriega had taken our offer to go to Spain but the Panamanian ruling military structure was left largely intact, we wouldn't have accomplished our primary objective.
"Once the Panamanian military was actually defeated and you had U.S. forces actually in the country, it was much easier to push through a policy where basically everyone above the rank of major was cashiered."
And although Saddam resists the idea, there is a growing body of opinion in the Arab world that taking the asylum route may be the Iraqi leader's best revenge, frustrating the hopes of some both inside the Bush administration and outside it who see a shooting war in Iraq as part of a larger effort to transform the political landscape of the Middle East.
"It would cut the grass out under the feet of the U.S.," Kamel Labidi, former director of Amnesty International's Beirut office, told the San Francisco Chronicle recently.
Mr. Labidi was one of some 50 Arab intellectuals who published an open letter to Saddam imploring him to accept an asylum deal to avoid war.
The letter only contributed to feverish speculation in the region that an exile package was in the works.
"We call upon public opinion in the Arab world to exercise pressure for the dismissal of Saddam Hussein and his close aides in Iraq in order to avoid a war that threatens a catastrophe among the peoples of the region, foremost among whom are the Iraqi people," the letter said.
The Texas-based private intelligence service Stratfor noted that forcing Saddam to go would meet only one of the Bush administration's many goals for the region.
"From a strategic standpoint, it would achieve nothing, unless the United States was allowed to enter Iraq and base substantial forces there under its own control, to be used as it wishes," the Stratfor analysis said.
But Arab diplomats say that one precedent slowing the exile idea has been the example of Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who acceded to NATO demands to end the 1999 Kosovo conflict but then was turned over under heavy U.S. and European pressure by the new Belgrade government to an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Saddam, they say, would be unlikely to trust the promises of any leader who took him in that he could long be protected from Mr. Milosevic's fate.
Arab governments are also loath to be seen interfering in what they see as Iraq's internal affairs, fearing the example could have unintended consequences far beyond Baghdad.
The government of Turkey Thursday convened a much-anticipated summit of Iraq's immediate neighbors and Egypt, with the explicit goal of finding a diplomatic way out of the current impasse to avoid a war.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher denied last week that the Turkey summit would focus on an asylum deal for Saddam.
"I think it is incorrect to talk about interference in Iraq's internal affairs," Prince Saud told reporters in Cairo. "Talk about amnesty or exile is something that should be determined by the Iraqi people."
Mr. Maher said that "the aim [of the conference] is not to interfere in the Iraqi internal affairs.
"They are to choose their leadership, and all we are concerned about is to find a solution that would spare the Iraqi people the danger of a military attack," he said.
And Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said last week publicly what many Arab leaders feel privately that forcing Saddam to leave could be used as a model for changing other undemocratic regimes in the region.
"The question of deposing the regime or the leadership in Iraq would set a dangerous precedent, and it's irresponsible to consider the possibility of the leadership going," Mr. Saleh told students in a speech at San'a University in the Yemeni capital.
He blamed the U.S. military buildup on the American "Jewish lobby" that is trying to divert the world's attention from the plight of the Palestinians in Israel.
But with nearly 200,000 U.S., British and Australian forces massing in the region, and the Bush administration increasingly critical of the U.N. inspections process, exile appears the only diplomatic solution that can conceivably head off a war.
A string of senior Bush administration officials only fueled the speculation with coordinated comments on television talks shows last weekend that Washington could accept exile for Saddam.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he would be "delighted" if an exile deal averted a war.
"To avoid a war, I would … recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership in that country and their families could be provided haven in some other country," he said.
Added State Department spokesman Richard Boucher: "It's an option that we would all hope [Saddam] would take advantage of."
Saddam may not be the world's only despot offered an exit strategy.
Zimbabwe opposition figures say they have been approached by top aides to President Robert Mugabe about exile for the president in the face of a famine, international isolation and rising social unrest.
As with Saddam, the exile rumors have a political utility even if ultimately proven untrue. They advertise the shakiness of Mr. Mugabe's rule and raise doubts among his followers about their embattled leader's commitment and staying power.
The Saddam exile scenario has become so prominent that it has even become monologue fodder for the late-night television comics.
David Letterman offered a "Top Ten List" of ways to tell if Saddam has moved in next door, and NBC's Jay Leno said the Bush administration has developed a plan to ask Saddam to give up power voluntarily and disappear completely from public view.
"It's called the 'Al Gore option,'" Mr. Leno joked.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide