An island paradise for former dictators

It’s nice to get a link from a high-traffic blog like Andrew Sullivan’s. Unfortunately, that link goes to what I think is one of my more hare-brained ideas — a weird scheme to conscript jury duty into service as an employment office.

This is, I think, a Bad Idea — see the comment thread there for a host of reasons why. As I said in the post itself, though, I was mainly hoping it might be the kind of half-baked Bad Idea that might prompt a bit of creative thinking that could, in turn, foster some not-so-bad ideas.

In that vein, let’s revisit another of my Bad Ideas — this is my grand scheme for a smoother way to end dictatorships and transition to democracy in formerly autocratic nations.

Part of the problem with being a dictator is that it’s hard to stop. It’s a classic tiger-by-the-tail scenario. If a dictator wants to ease up on the oppression and repression enforced by his secret police, the odds are that things will quickly get out of hand and come to an ugly, violent end.

You may have seen the horrific video of Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal death. Dictators realize that this is a likely scenario for them if they don’t die in office. This is part of why so many of them, when confronted with mass-movements calling for reform, double down with ever-more violent suppression and oppression.

We’re seeing this dynamic at work right now in Syria, where Assad is just straight-up murdering his own people in an effort to keep his dictatorship intact. There has been some talk of providing him with another option — some kind of “safe passage” into exile.

My grand scheme would enhance the attractiveness of this option for all such dictators.

The precise location of the island would, for security reasons, need to be kept secret, but it would be someplace beautiful — the kind of island rightly described as a “paradise.” Somewhere in the South Pacific, maybe, or the Indian Ocean or Caribbean. Sparkling blue water, perfect weather, lush surroundings.

And this island paradise would have all the amenities to which a kleptocratic dictator would have grown accustomed — all provided by an international all-star team. A household staff overseen by a top-notch British butler. A four-star kitchen run by a distinguished French chef. Golf courses designed by the legends of the game. Concierge medicine from the best doctors money can buy. Other, less licit, indulgences are also readily available to cater to any given predilection.

The island, in other words, would promise a life of decadent luxury and uninterrupted indulgence.

And that island paradise, that earthly heaven, would await any dictator willing to step aside. Just say the word and Bashar al-Assad and his family would be whisked away from the cares of the world and resettled in a spectacular mansion on the island. His new home would be far enough from the other island estates that he wouldn’t need to worry about Robert Mugabe or Omar al-Bashir spying over his manicured hedges. But it would still be close enough that he could get together with Islam Karimov and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov for drinks or tennis whenever he liked.

The nations formerly ground under those former-dictators’ boots, meanwhile, would now be free to determine their futures without fear of repression.

This proposal has a few downsides. It’s morally repugnant, for one thing. The bottom line would be that some of the worst criminals on the planet would be escaping justice, effectively being rewarded for their decades of cruelty and oppression.

I try to address this objection in Phase B of the plan (see below), but also bear in mind that, while hard to swallow, such largesse to monsters might ultimately entail less injustice and less harm than either leaving them in power or attempting to dislodge them by force. The idea of Bashar al-Assad living out the rest of his days in lavish luxury is an ugly thought, but it might not be too high a price if it means ending the current injustice and violence in his country.

There’s also the problem of moral hazard. This island paradise for former dictators could, in effect, become an incentive to others to become horrifically brutal dictators in the hopes of one day being offered such a retirement package in exchange for stepping down.

To mitigate against that, the existence of the island and the splendor of its many amenities would need to be kept a secret.

I imagine it working like this. The special liaison from UNCETSD would arrive at the palace of a given dictator. The special liaison would eventually arrive at every such palace. That is his job as special liaison for the United Nations Commission for Expediting the Transition to Self-Determination. His job is to visit every dictator and invite them to retire — invite them to see that doing so, voluntarily, is in their own best interests.

The special liaison is a nondescript man who travels with no entourage, no trappings of authority. He carries only his UNCETSD credentials, a draft contract, and a DVD. The DVD offers a guided tour of the island, highlighting all the splendors it has to offer to any dictator who agrees to leave power. It looks a bit like the promotional DVD for any other all-included retirement community, except this community is far more fabulously luxurious and this video is narrated by Tony Blair. It also includes enthusiastic testimonials from former dictators now enjoying life on the island — once feared and notorious men who later, one day, mysteriously vanished and were never heard from again.

The special liaison meets with the dictator in person and they watch the DVD. “You have a month to consider this offer,” he says. He is a firm man with a no-nonsense manner of speaking, but he can also be quite charming, even when dealing with some of the most reprehensible men on earth. Surprisingly, he’s also particularly good with young children — thrilling them with descriptions of the island’s Disney-imagineered amusement park rides and water slides. Sometimes, he has found, the surest way to a heartless dictator’s heart is through his grandchildren.

Would this work? I don’t know.

I’d like to dream that it could, because I’d love to see some more effective method of encouraging repressive strongmen to just walk away, allowing their people a better chance at the freedom and dignity that every person deserves.

And I’d like to see it work because Phase B might prove both educational and entertaining.

This kicks in after several years have passed and the former dictators have grown accustomed to life in their island paradise.

The evacuation occurs swiftly and silently, in the dead of night. The former dictators awake to find all the servants gone. The butlers and household servants, chefs, masseuses, groundskeepers and golf pros, farriers and falconers, all simply gone. So too are the grandchildren and any other members of their families under the age of 18.

It may take them a day or two to fully realize what this means. The supply ships and supply planes are not coming back. They are now, in effect, shipwrecked and marooned. And they will have to struggle to survive.

As they desperately take stock of their situation, perhaps they will notice one or two of the cameras, artfully hidden everywhere they turn. But even if they find a handful of these hidden cameras, they won’t find enough of them to interfere with the live webfeeds and edited broadcast versions of the reality show: Lords of the Flies: Chaos in Paradise. That’s Phase B.

"Point the first: NPR's fact checkingI got the terminology wrong in the second paragraph, but ..."

Unspoken testimony
"The true social justice adventure should know how to craft their own, those are snazzy ..."

Unspoken testimony
"The docks? The gallows would be better."

Unspoken testimony

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  •  The problem is, Phase B is exactly what the dictators would be expecting.

    Indeed, one might have a kind of revenge by setting up Phase A, stepping back and doing nothing, and letting the dictators create a bloodbath on that lovely island all by themselves out of mistrust. (Unfortunately, this bloodbath would take a number of innocent staff and families with them.)

    Or merely letting them wait, in self-created torment, sure that one day Phase B would come… but not knowing what form it would take or when.

  • Parisienne

    One minor problem I see: Tony Blair on the voiceover. While this would certainly appeal to his vanity, it’s never going to work. You need someone capable of sounding sincere.

    (No, no other voice in humanity is quite so capable of making me want to throw things at my radio)

  • Tom

    Hahaha!  Tony Blair would SO do the narration!

  • Tonio

     I can think of a few other voices – Bill O’Reilly w0uld sound insufferably smug even if he were reading from the phone book.

  • Ursula L

    #3 offends our sense of justice for even the whisper of possibility that those who we personally have judged guilty might not be punished. More than that, #3scares us, because it allows for the possibility that our sense of justice is wrong, our systems of justice are wrong, or both. 

    # 3 offends our sense of justice?

    I would say, rather that any genuine sense of justice demands option three.  We know we are human, and make mistakes in judgment, mistakes that would do great harm if our individual gut reaction on guilt or innocence was the determining factor in inflicting punishment.  

    From the beginning, I wanted to see Bin Ladin on trial.  Genuine trial.  New York State Supreme Court, New York County.  And in the other jurisdictions where his crimes were committed.  With rights and a competent defense and the potential for legal punishment up to life in prison. 

    #1 and #2 scare me.  It’s too easy to say “but this person is really bad, and we really know it, so we don’t have to bother with the procedures and institutions that we as a human society have developed to  be sure we don’t make mistakes, and can correct any mistakes when they are discovered.”  This or that category of person doesn’t deserve to be treated as a human, with human rights.  

    Don’t confuse the desire for revenge with a sense of justice.  Justice requires evidence and fairness.  Justice requires moderation and self-control.  

    The desire for revenge is an instinct that needs to be controlled.  Calling such desire “justice” as if it were a virtue is immoral, because you’re deluding yourself into thinking you’re acting morally when you aren’t.  

  • Tonio

     Ursula codified something I had been thinking when I wrote my original post. Any genuine sense of justice demands option three because we don’t have the power to bring back all the lives that OBL ordered destroyed. Or to make him feel remorse. Or to prevent future generations around the world from thinking of him as anything but a monster.

  • Jim from BC

    Even if Assad left or died tomorrow the violence in Syria would go on. The reason the government and army are so loyal in Syria is because they are mainly drawn from the Shia and other minority ethno-religious groups that have been favored or protected by the regime and would probably be massacred if the regime fell.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Isn’t this what Special Circumstances does with brutal dictators in Iain M. Banks’s books? 

    Except it isn’t an incentive, and they don’t get a choice about it.

    And then there’s what Grey Area does…

    Nope.  We just cut them out of the supply chain.  Or, let them bid the price up.

    The problem is they’re perfectly willing to use force and intimidation to *make* the growers supply them.  So you now you need to protect the growers, and you’re right back at square one.

  • The problem is they’re perfectly willing to use force and intimidation to *make* the growers supply them.  So you now you need to protect the growers, and you’re right back at square one.

    Yeah, they’re gonna wave guns around and intimidate a bunch of Afghans.  Riiight ….

  • Dan Gerszewski

    I rather like a turn of phrase I found in an old WWII training film on working undercover, turning it about here of course.

    Of course being eminently  fair you could charge dictators billions to be free and safe, and charge the other side billions to have a free shot at their former tormentor.

    Dictatorships tend to collapse into troubled democracies, the kind that have kleptocrats… worth billions.

    Charge them to get safe, then wait a respectable period and charge their former captives billions more to get them alone in a room with a blowtorch, a taser, and a chance to do to them just exactly what their secret police did to them….

    I love it.

  • Guest

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to hire high-priced assassins to take these guys out? Not that assassination isn’t repugnant, but I don’t see it as any more repugnant than, as someone said, making them into Hunger Games contestants.

    I think the point another person made that dictators don’t exist in a vacuum is relevant. You can’t be a dictator unless people allow it, and those are the people that will still be around when the dictator is off drinking mai-tais.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Yeah, they’re gonna wave guns around and intimidate a bunch of Afghans.  Riiight ….

    Yes.  Much like… you know, they currently do.  There are quite a few guns in Afghanistan, but they’re concentrated in the hands of the Mujahadeen.  That’s a fair portion of the problem – US/Coalition forces can’t secure the countryside against the Taliban – at least not completely.  Sure, the Taliban probably can’t concentrate a force large enough to actually take over a village by force, at least not without getting spotted and bombed to pieces, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a presence – they’re guerillas, after all, they don’t need to occupy a country outright to be threatening.  Granted, there will probably be a lot more public support for ‘greater profits’ compared to say, educating girls and all the other things we’re trying to do now, so that might bring up a greater level of resistance…
    But Afghanistan is not actually the armed camp you might expect.  Like many third world countries, there aren’t as many guns as we tend to think… (England has more) they’re just concentrated in the hands of the militants. 

    I suppose the plan could be made to work if the profit margin is great enough.

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to hire high-priced assassins to take these guys out? Not that assassination isn’t repugnant, but I don’t see it as any more repugnant than, as someone said, making them into Hunger Games contestants.

    I think the point another person made that dictators don’t exist in a vacuum is relevant. You can’t be a dictator unless people allow it, and those are the people that will still be around when the dictator is off drinking mai-tais.

    Assassination is… suboptimal, but it’s not like you can feasibly arrest them, and it’s a heck of a lot better than starting a war.  Superficially, anyways.  The problem with assassination is that it simply leaves a power vacuum, causing a brief clusterfuck as the mini-dictators fight to see who gets to be the next boss.

    And, of course, the big problem with any of these ideas is diplomatic.  You’d need an alliance of pretty much all the great powers (the US, the NATO nations, Russia, China… to a lesser extent places like Japan and Saudi Arabia) to pull it off without severe political consequences.  And of course, all of those nations are not always *interested* in dictators being deposed…
    You can’t do it with the UN because the aforementioned dictators vote in the UN!

  • There seems to be a tacit international agreement to the effect of “you don’t shoot our guys and we won’t shoot your guys”.  If everybody started shooting everybody else’s leaders, things would very quickly turn into chaos.  I believe this was the rationale for the nineteenth century anarchists — that’s just the situation that they wanted.

    Also, assassinating a Mad Dictator simply isn’t that easy.  One of the chef talents of dictators (Khadaffi and Saddam Hussein in particular) is unpredictability. You have to get your assassin into position before the dictator shows up — and he probably doesn’t know himself where he’ll be in half an hour.

    Shooting the dictator’s critical support people has also been tried (cf. 
    Gerald Bull).  That’s another method for turning a country into chaos.

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    Didn’t France used to do Part A occasionally? House on the French Riviera, and so on. “Baby Doc” Duvalier stayed in France for several decades after losing a revolution in Haiti. (For some reason, he decided to go back to Haiti last year, and is now in jail. Oops?)