So a few days ago I predicted that Gadhaffi would be the first to go. Since then, everyone important out there has used another spelling of his name, but, despite being wrong about the orthography, I was sure right about the politics. Unfortunately, unlike Mubarak, Gadhaffi is hanging on; he’s shown, as I put it roughly, the “strength of will” to kill his own people.
Of course, it’s not will; or, perhaps, not just will (and, even if it is, I don’t mean that in a positive way, but it surely takes a good dose of nerves or sociopathy to call for such a thing to happen). The prospective mass murderer or genocide needs a solid structure around them, with people willing to pull the trigger at the street level. Most of all, said leader needs to believe that there’s no alternative — that things truly can’t get worse if they kill a bunch of civilians and plunge their homeland into (temporary or long-term) chaos — and they need to share that frame with their triggermen.
That creates a substantial conflict: on the one hand, we want to make these criminals pay for their awful crimes à la Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, we want to get them to just give up quickly, à la Hosni Mubarak, so as to minimize the human and financial costs of their overthrow. Sun Tzu once said “To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape… Show him there is a road to safety, and so create in his mind the idea that there is an alternative to death. Then strike.” Leaving that alternative in his mind gives your enemy a strong reason to give up; someone who’s sure to die will quite likely just choose to fight to the last.
And that’s just what Gadhaffi is doing here. He’s assuredly concluded that he has three possible fates if his regime falls:
- He’ll be extradited to Britain, put in prison for the Lockerbie bombing, and quite probably die from a shank someday soon in some dim hallway.
- He’ll be imprisoned and, fairly promptly, executed by the replacement regime, à la Saddam Hussein
- He’ll be killed promptly upon capture, or shortly thereafter, à la Ngo Dinh Diem
While there’s little evidence that Gadhaffi has been a reasonable man since, say, 1970, even a reasonable man might well decide to fight on and possibly retain power — and his head — given these alternatives. We can all cross our fingers that the rebels will be successful, but, since Gadhaffi is unlikely to surrender, we’ve got to hope he’s crazy enough to put a bullet through his own head, or that his loyalists are progressive enough to do it for him.
Fortunately, a person who might be a member of the provisional government, which may or may not exist, seems to have made a first step down that path. If Gaddhaffi’s survival depends on his supporters believing that they’re all part of one group, there are still two possible groups that that they can believe they share:
- The group of true believers in the Jamahirya
- The group of people who will lose their heads shortly after the Brotherly Leader and Guide
The members of group 1 are pretty much beyond any influencing; they have fundamentally accepted a frame that describes the world in a way in which Libya must be run as it has been. The members of group 2, however, have only accepted a frame that says that the revolutionaries are their enemies and will kill them. If that frame can be rendered illegitimate and replaced with one that explains the world in such a way that they won’t be killed by the revolutionaries, then these individuals will go over to the other side.
The possible member of the new government stating that members of Gadhaffi’s tribe will “be forgiven” for his actions challenges the current we-must-all-hang-together-or-we-shall-surely-hang-separately frame. But, of course, the obvious question is: must anyone hang?
It’s difficult to say “yes, let’s not prosecute these people who’ve committed multiple crimes against humanity,” and, indeed, modern civilization depends to a great extent on enforcement of international law. On the other hand, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been successful at allowing peaceful transitions to take place in other countries. These commissions generally trade immunity for information: the objective is not to find out who did what and punish them, but to get the truth out so that nobody is stuck wondering what happened to a loved one long gone.
That’s a tough ethical pill to swallow, but, with so many states in the Middle East under pressure, there may be some value to having some UN-run centralized Truth and Reconciliation commission that can provide some form of immunity to leaders who agree to leave without a fight, be open and complete about any past acts, and return any wealth stolen from the countries they run. Sure, we might have to set them up in some quiet place with a pension, but that might be a fair trade for quicker regime change in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. (As a side benefit: that regime change may result in states friendlier to the Western world.)
Like Sun Tzu said: maybe we need to leave our enemies a way out. And maybe the best thing we can leave our children is the full truth of what happened. That will last long after Gadhaffi’s hanged.