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What If Saddam Went Into Exile?



In dictatorships like Iraq and North Korea, one man, by definition, makes a huge difference. If Saddam Hussein (or, for that matter, Kim Jong Il) could be induced to go into exile, regime change could proceed forthwith, thereby saving us an enormous amount of lives and treasure to unseat them.

The U.S. is now poised to deploy approximately 200,000 troops to the Persian Gulf. Potential coalition members–Britain and others–are also readying to send thousands of troops and materiél. Barring an unlikely final report by the U.N. arms inspectors absolving Saddam Hussein of any violations of Security Council Resolution 1441, and a refusal by the Security Council to authorize the use of force, President Bush will order the invasion of Iraq.

Recent reports that Saudi, Qatari and other Arab officials have urged Saddam Hussein to resign and go into exile are very intriguing. Proposed havens for Mr. Hussein include Libya, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Belarus and others. If these reports are true, and if Hussein were to act on them favorably, they might lead to a peaceful resolution of the global crisis.

What are the factors favoring exile and what factors militate against it? By far the most significant factor favoring exile is the ongoing massive military build-up. If Turkey finally permits the U.S. to use its airbases and accepts logistical and other support operations on the ground, an invasion of northern Iraq would be possible. And with Saudi Arabia likely to permit U.S. military operations from the south, a two-frontal attack would pose an overwhelming threat to Iraq’s regime. Faced with such a threat, Saddam Hussein would not be able to dismiss it with his usual bellicose rhetoric. He might then see the “handwriting on the wall.” It might finally dawn on him that an impending invasion would wreak catastrophic destruction on Iraq, including Baghdad and even Tikrit, where his family and clansmen live. An offer of safe haven for himself, his three wives, his two sons, and with an entourage of favorite relatives from Tikrit, in a culturally-comfortable Arab country, might appeal to Hussein.

The factors militating against Hussein’s choosing exile are substantial. He has virtually never traveled abroad and hence has developed a xenophobic fear of leaving Iraq. From reports of his autocratic and ruthless rule of Iraq, he is evidently intoxicated with power, which he exercises with megalomaniacal zeal. For example, when his son-in-law defected, he lured him back to Baghdad and had him promptly executed.

Faced with military defeat in the event of a U.S. invasion, which even his loyal Republican Guards would not be able to save him from, he might prefer the role of martyr for his country.

Further complicating a possible voluntary choice of exile by Hussein is a fear–not entirely unfounded–of eventually being extradited to The Hague, to stand trial for war crimes and innumerable violations of human rights against his own citizens, especially the Kurds, whom he attacked with mustard gas. The spectacle of Milosevic being tried for war crimes in The Hague by an ad hoc tribunal has, I am sure, not been lost on Saddam Hussein. The ironic fact that the U.S., at the behest of the Bush administration, has neither signed nor ratified the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, will not be a source of reassurance to Hussein–unless he were explicitly guaranteed an exemption from prosecution by an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague.

Finally, if he were to choose exile in one of his favorite Arab countries, say Libya, he would find himself in an anomalous power position vis-à-vis his host: he would be beholden for his security to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. This would be a strangely uncomfortable position for Hussein, who operates with a self-image of omnipotence.

Can diplomats from Arab, Muslim and Western countries continue to exert influence on Saddam Hussein to avail himself of the opportunity for exile and thus avert a devastating war on Iraq?

WILLIAM M. EVAN is professor emeritus of sociology and management at the University of Pennsylvania. Author of several books on organization theory and the sociology of law, his most recent book (with Mark Manion) is Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters. He can be reached at:

Copyright © 2003 WILLIAM M. EVAN. All rights reserved.


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