Freezing Dictator Assets: Good Idea?

Wouldn't we be better off offering besieged rules exile in relative comfort in exchange for graceful exits?

Steven Taylor passes on word that Egypt has issued a travel ban on Hosni Mubarak and his family and frozen their assets. Similar moves are underway for some of the regions other dictators under siege, notably Libya’s Muammar Gaddafy.

I’m wondering whether this is such a good idea.

It’s certainly a just moral outcome. These potentates amassed great wealth by stealing it from their people, who they allowed to live in utter poverty. It’s unseemly that they should continue to live in the lap of luxury after they’re ousted from power, let alone that their children go on to do the same thing.

Sometimes, however, justice gets in the way of practical considerations. The main thing that we want with respect to authoritarian dictators facing popular uprising is their smooth, peaceful transition from power.

A dictator faced with revolt has two options: Step aside or crack down hard.  Mubarak chose the former and Gaddafy the latter.

If the bad guys know they’re going to lose everything if they step aside, they’re far more likely to unleash the military, police, or whatever other tools of state violence remain at their disposal against innocents. That’s why it’s a good idea to treat prisoners of war humanely: it makes it more likely they’ll surrender rather than fight to the death.

So, wouldn’t we be better off offering besieged rules  exile in relative comfort in exchange for graceful exits? It’s less morally satisfying than throwing them in jail or stripping them of all their worldly possessions. But it might save countless lives.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Would it be better if we let bank robbers keep the proceeds of their crimes so they could live out the rest of their lives in peace? It would do so much to discourage future bank robbers!

    Neither Libya nor Egypt can afford to let their erstwhile dictators abscond with big chunks of their countries’ wealth. It’s vitally needed at home and the level of their thievery is almost unimaginable.

    Still, it might be worthwhile trying to find some middle ground. I’m chary of it being effective. These guys have never been much for agreeing to a middle ground.

  2. John Burgess says:

    I’ve long advocated that the UN might do something useful: buy an island, remote and not particularly pleasant, and develop it into a resort for failed dictators and ousted leaders. They could live there comfortably and safely, but could never leave that island. No Internet or phones, either.

    Let them bring their families, if they choose. Let them have a grand old time on the beach or at the pool.

    Do not let them have any sort of intercourse with the rest of the world.

    The project would be funded through the seizure of the dictators’ ill-gotten assets from all the foreign banks in which they’ve hidden them.

  3. James Joyner says:


    Mubarak stepped aside peacefully, more-or-less. A couple Haitian dictators and others come to mind. I wouldn’t let them keep everything but maybe they get a couple million dollars as a severance package.

  4. I note that even at OTB we can’t agree on the proper spelling of the last name of the current leader of Libya 😀

  5. James Joyner says:


    The fact that there isn’t a proper English spelling is a major part of the problem. I generally use the NYT version as my guide to standardization but their retention of a Q-spelling for his last name long after most have gone to a G-spelling makes it problematic.

  6. John Burgess says:

    You choose between the written or spoken versions of his name. The Q-form is correct if you’re focused on the written, which of course a blog is. If you’re doing TV or radio, then you can choose the G-form if you like. Nobody sees your spelling while your speaking… except the teleprompter!

    See this post from The Economist’s language blog, ‘Johnson’ for a good discussion of the issue.

  7. Richard Gardner says:

    This discussion brings to mind the lyrics from Evita’s “A New Argentina,”

    All exiles are distinguished, more important, they’re not dead.

    What was the norm is no longer so.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    There is no universally accepted romanization of Arabic. That’s compounded by dialectical differences.

    I use the Q spelling because it’s a transliteration rather than a transcription.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, IIRC the sound in question is a voiced (or unvoiced depending on where the speaker is from) velar fricative. We don’t have them in English any more.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Sure, we should let them retire in comfort. And when a black kid in the ghetto steals $50, we should send him to prison for 5 years. Makes sense to me.

  11. James Joyner says:


    I think we over-incarcerate in this country. But the two have nothing to do with one another. We often cut deals, offer amnesty, and use other tools to get dangerous people to testify against one another, agree to go to jail without trial, and so forth.

    My point isn’t that we should go free incarcerated dictators from jail, but rather that we should consider golden parachutes as a bloodless way to get potentates to resign from power. It beats hundreds dead in the streets, civil wars, and the like.

  12. anjin-san says:

    > But the two have nothing to do with one another.

    My guess is that the kid who is doing a nickel sees it differently…