March 17, 2006Foreign Affairs

Dealing with odious tyrants

Yes, coddling monsters has a price

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

It is par for the course to carry out the vilification of odious tyrants in retrospect. For instance, The Economist seeks to explain why Slobodan Milosevic, a dark, malign personality”, was tolerated for so many years. Both by Serbia, a country with a talented, cosmopolitan middle class” and by the international community.

In unravelling the answer to this question,The Economist, as usual, makes cogent, well-articulated arguments in its leader. Serbia’s middle-class failed to curb Milosevic’s excesses because no nation, however civilised, is immune to fascism’, it offers.

In fact, the dilemma Mr Milosevic posed to western policymakers is pretty common. It can arise in any regional war where drastic intervention looks hard—either because voters lack the stomach, or because the human and military costs look too high. In such a case, politicians will ask, what alternative is there but to “sup with devils” and strike deals?

And in any war zone where chaos or catastrophe looms, a tyrant with enough power to strike and deliver bargains is a tempting interlocutor. But remember—today’s deal-maker on one front can become tomorrow’s trouble-maker on another; and confronting a monster may ultimately be harder if you have spent many years playing down his monstrosity. [The Economist]The example it cites to illustrate the point proves yet again, that it is the defanged or the dead tyrant who is vilified.

Take Saddam Hussein. America’s case for overthrowing him, on grounds of his egregious wickedness, would have had more legitimacy if he had not been treated, two decades earlier, as a good pawn in the game of containing Iran. That is not just an ethical point; coddling tyrants has strategic costs too. In a diabolical world, you may have to sup with devils some of the time. But don’t sit too long at the table, or offer too many tasty dishes—especially if you expect to fight them one day. [The Economist]

There are one too many odious tyrants that the west and India are supping with right now. Perhaps their vilification will have to await their retirements.

Related Post: For policymakers who have to deal with them, here are some non-cuddly ways to sup with the devil.

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