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Arranging Retirement for Dictators

Perhaps Saddam Hussein should be allowed "to live a happy life forevermore" if he leaves the Iraqi presidency, President Bush suggested Tuesday.

"If you came to me as a broker and you said, 'I can get him out of there, but he'd have to be able to live a happy live forevermore in some third country,' . . . I might be [willing], I'd have to think about it. . . . We want him out of there so badly, and I think it's so important to the tranquillity of Iraq that under that condition we might."

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Dictator Hussein may be the most pressing case on President Bush's agenda. But other one-time clients of the United States or of the Soviet Union could be facing forced retirement soon as well.

Among them are charismatic Cuba's Fidel Castro, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko and Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile-Mariam, all nationalist autocrats, who rocketed into prominence and thrived on the political intrigue of the Cold War. A breed whose times has passed, they are fighting for their political survival.

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Mr. Hussein exemplifies the trends which are working to bring down the autocrats.

In the past, Mr. Hussein parlayed the geopolitics of the Cold War to advance his own political agendas. Armed by the Soviet Union (along with other lesser powers), Mr. Hussein amassed a considerable military arsenal, which he used ruthlessly to quash his internal opponents. Then, during the war with Iran, he was able to obtain military intelligence and economic assistance from the United States, as well as economic support from regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.

Supporting dictatorial regimes was as much a part of the Cold War as the direct competition of the arms race.

That was then, and this is now.

The Berlin Wall crumbled two years ago. Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed almost overnight, and the Cold War ended with a whimper instead of a bang.

Facing tough domestic economic hardships resulting from the arms race, neither side could any longer justify bankrolling billions of dollars to support foreign autocrats for purely ideological or military interests that simply ceased to exist.

In the wake of this new era of cooperation, the autocrats, such as Mr. Hussein, face a few sobering choices:

* They can choose to die fighting to retain control, as did Liberia's late president Samuel Doe, bequeathing bloody, protracted struggles that will leave their nations in ruin.

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* They can submit peacefully to the inevitable, adapt to the momentum of political change and relinquish control, as was the case in much of Eastern Europe.

* Or they can simply flee into political exile like the Shah of Iran, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti or Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.

"What we may be seeing pass is the day when dictators can go to external support to keep themselves in power," said Daniel Papp, director of Georgia Tech's School of International Affairs. "The end of the East-West confrontation removes the first level, and most important level, of external funds and support for dictators."

Autocrats can still seek support from regional powers,just as Iraq enlisted help from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during its war with Iran. But the removal of the big-power source of external support accelerates domestic ferment to unseat autocratic regimes. That happened in the Philippines in 1986, and most recently in Mali.

As the Soviet Union and the U.S. turn toward regular diplomatic and economic cooperation, they "realize that regional conflicts are expensive and dangerous." Mr. Papp said. "They are moving toward resolving them, ameliorating them or keeping their involvement at a minimum."

The departure of autocrats will not automatically solve political turmoil. But while assassinating foreign heads-of-state may no longer be preferable behavior for any power, arranging political asylum could become the most cost-effective way to provide a crucial catalyst for eventual political settlements.

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"These dictators are political lepers, who were imposed on the people," said Sulayman Nyang, chairman of Howard University's African Studies department. "They're all on the run. These men, all those who were part of the Cold War, will disappear by Christmas Day, 1999."

In fact, the prevailing trend toward political pluralism and democracy has already produced a steady number of deposed dictators seeking asylum and could produce a flood of them in coming years.

Political asylum has long been an accepted part of the diplomatic game. It was a feature of the early days of the Cold War, when several monarchs and leaders, such as Egypt's King Farouk, fled into exile. The autocrats, with Swiss bank accounts and lavish villas abroad, have always been prepared to cut their political losses just short of their throats and seek exile abroad.

Washington arranged exile and political asylum for the shah of Iran, Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Haiti's Duvalier and the Philippines' Marcos. (The latter was virtually kidnapped aboard a U.S. transport plane after being initially told that he was being flown to his home island of Illicos Norte). Over the years, Moscow has done its own share of rescuing. In the most recent example, it whisked former East German Communist Party leader Erich Honecker out of the reach of criminal prosecutors.

If each side previously went its own way, there are compelling reasons for U.S.-Soviet cooperation now.

The Soviets need to end their international political and economic isolation, which is only possible through increased trade, economic aid and assistance from the West.

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Ray Cline, Georgetown University professor and former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said conversations last year with his former KGB counterparts confirmed that the Soviets "recognized that they made a poor investment in the Third World, in general, and specifically the Middle East in Iraq and Syria. The Soviets decided they had to cut them loose to have a reasonable relationship with the international community to get the economic benefits they hoped for."

One for future Soviet-U.S. cooperation could be Cuba.

"Things are already changing," said Mr. Cline of the Soviets' annual $5 billion subsidy. "I don't see how they're going to support Castro much longer now. They've already cut off subsidies for gas and oil. They can't subsidize him anymore because they're broke. They can't afford to make foreign investment in any of these countries, like Cuba, Angola and Mozambique anymore because they're broke."

If domestic political turmoil continues to build in Cuba, Mr. Castro may no longer count on external ideological or economic support from the Soviet Union, nor can he turn to his American foes and end the decades-old economic embargo.

The Soviets, either through their ambassador or KGB station chief in Havana, could offer to arrange for the Cuban leader's departure. While the U.S. would not be directly involved, it might work as an intermediary to secure a refuge in a suitable third country, such as Spain or Portugal. Such hospitality would not come without a price, but the cost would be nominal compared to the economic bonanza Western capitalists could reap developing a non-Communist Cuba, finally returning to the U.S. economic orbit.

Similar scenarios could eventuate with Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The Soviets could pave the way for the dictator's departure while the U.S. or third parties, such as Saudi Arabia or perhaps Libya, could help arrange for political asylum in a third country.

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For many dictators, it has become a question of when, and under circumstances they will flee, rather than if. Who is next?

Is it Ethiopia's Mengistu who, despite $11 billion in Soviet arms, is seeing domestic rebels threaten the capital? Or could it be Zaire's Mobutu, Jordan's King Hussein, Syria's Hafez al-Assad -- or even Kuwait's recently-returned Sabah royal family?

The window of opportunity, however, swings open precariously.

The prospect of this post-Cold War cooperation will depend on the cloudy political future of Mikhail Gorbachev. Someday he himself might want to consider asylum.

S.M. Khalid is a reporter for The Sun.


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