Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford discusses one of the hardest thematic issues in diplomacy: the politics of ‘decompression’

Back in the mists of 2016, I shared with Diplomat readers my thoughts on bad leaders:

“Yes, we were wicked. But hey, look at the sheer scale of our wickedness. Be honest. Don’t you find that just a little bit …impressive?”

This appalling thought skews the psychology of whole populations. People who survive may quietly rejoice when the Bad Leader finally dies. But insofar as the Bad Leader left them a legacy of anything positive (new roads, factories and universities, perhaps a huge army with efficient weapons) it’s steeped in the blood of their own colleagues, friends and family members.

How do they look back on the Bad Leader’s reign of terror? Could they have done more to stop it, or at least reduce the harm? Did they turn away from the horror happening down the street, or down the corridor? Were they all, when it came to it, cowards who sold their souls to stay alive?

These grim existential questions emerge once the Bad Leader is dead, and has been Bad right to the end. What if well before that point the Bad Leader ponders the situation and starts to see advantage in being a Not-Quite-So-Bad Leader? And what if the rest of the world rather likes that idea and decides to help?

This brings us to one of the hardest thematic issues in diplomacy, the politics of ‘decompression’: helping a repressive regime make reforms towards something notably more pluralistic.

Let’s take the sad case of the imagined country, ‘Sibya.’ Sibya is a human rights horror story. Its leader for some 30 years has been Colonel Gadflai, who took power in a military coup and has run the country on brutal national socialist principles. Sibyans are poor and unhappy and oppressed. However, across the region there is a sense of change. Even in Sibya there are rumblings of popular discontent.

For the first time Gadflai and his cruel clan allies who control Sibya feel uneasy. What if intensified repression this time does not work? What are the options?

Neither the Gaddafi precedent (hacked to death in a ditch) nor the Assad precedent (presiding over a wrecked country) nor the Milošević precedent (wrecking a country and ending up on trial for war crimes) appeal. Likewise the Gorbachev precedent: he manoeuvred into the ideal spot – a communist beloved in the West – but he crashed the mighty USSR! Even Mugabe has ended up looking forlorn and ridiculous.

So, they muse, is there a way to stay in power while edging towards ‘reforms’ that keep us in control for the foreseeable future, much as the cunning Castro elite in Cubaseem to have done? If so, can any international partners be trusted to help us achieve that?

Meanwhile international leaders are variously wondering what might happen in Sibya. They fall into three broad camps:


Those prepared to push for ‘change’: the Gadflai clan must leave power so that Sibyans themselves at last have the chance to make a fresh democratic start.


Those who favour ‘stability’: Sibyans aren’t ready for democracy and never will be, plus rapid change can easily lead to conflict. Some Pessimists may have something to lose in Sibya (eg a strategic naval base or access to oil reserves), and so will push hard for the outcome that suits themselves.


Those (the great majority) who don’t care a jot about Sibya or Sibyans, but who do not want any new precedents for ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘regime change.’

Gadflai and his cronies are shrewd about all this. To head off any awkward UN votes against themselves, they’ll play the Optimists against the Pessimists and doff their caps to the Cynics.

The Optimists face much the harder policy issues, as they really dislike the status quo. But how to get involved? If you engage directly with dirty Sibya leaders, how to avoid some of their dirt ending up on you? If you reward bad people for behaving a bit less badly, won’t they create new problems to get more rewards? Yes, engaging carefully and constructively offers the best hope of slowly but surely changing things for the better. The danger is that the Gadflai elite learns how to be oppressive in new, clever ways.

So perhaps, think the Optimists, it’s much better to encourage some sort of democratic opposition among Sibyans? But after decades of oppression maybe such people don’t exist, or are inept/feckless, or simply too weak?

The Optimists look sadly at the Libyacase. Gaddafi leaped from being problem to solution! Those stupid/wicked/naive Brits and other Europeans actively worked with Gaddafi after he handed over his weapons of mass destruction. They even trained the Libyan security forces to set in motion a process of reform and enlightenment.

Think about what this meant in practice. The Libyan secret police were known torturers. Even if the total amount of Libyan torture declined sharply as a direct result of Libyans cleaning up their act thanks to European support, European experts were helping a torturing regime be more efficient and respectable. Yet without outside engagement and rewards for Gaddafi, the chances of reducing Libyan torture at all (and thereby opening small new space for opposition trends) were hugely reduced.

All this is tricky enough in policy terms. But the problem with Gaddafi, sigh the Optimists, was that he just couldn’t let go. He shouted at us for betraying him when we politely hinted that he might think about stepping down! Bad Leaders really do seem to believe in their own eternal glory. Even if a Bad Leader can be persuaded to go, and a friendly country is willing to host them into their old age, is it an honourable use of taxpayers’ money quietly to bribe them and their odious elite to step down? They’ve stolen billions already!

Plus, sigh the Optimists even more sadly, can we credibly support Sibya moderates when there’s no justice on the programme? In a best-case scenario the villains who’ve brutalised them for decades stroll from their crimes and get re-legitimised by gushy Western op-eds praising those villains’ wisdom and dignity? Really?

The Pessimists and Cynics smirk at the Optimists grappling with these dilemmas. Why make life harder than it is already? Let’s be honest. There are no good options, or even principled options. Any so-called intervention will just make everything worse. Why not just work in good enough faith with Gadflai, and take things nice and slowly? Better the devil we all know. This is diplomacy.

Back in real life, we have two vivid contrasting decompressions on the global agenda: North Koreaand Iran, two problematic (but quite different) oppressive defiant regimes that export trouble despite sustained international sanctions.

With North Korea, President Trump has made a global splash by opting for direct personal engagement in meeting Kim Jong-un in Singapore. President Trump has had to insist that he’s not scheming for the Gaddafi Option (get things freed up, then cast the Bad Leader to local wolves):

“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea… this with Kim Jong Un would be something where he’d be there. He’d be running his country. His country would be very rich.”

On Iran, President Trump is brusquely breaking with engagement. He’s stepped back from President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran using an opposite argument: Iran’s regime has been getting much too rich as sanctions are eased, but not doing enough to deserve it.

Note the key policy difference here. President Trump is offering Kim Jong Un himself a superb deal based on trust: “If you work with us, be nice, loosen up and get rich, you can expect to stay in power for a loooong time. Why not win a Nobel Peace Prize along the way? Not bad!”

To Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei he’s saying the exact opposite, based on distrust: “You’ve had your chance. You’ve blown it. Time to go. This time the USwill not pussyfoot around. We’ll be there helping your internal enemies trample you into the dust. Sad!”

Optimists, Pessimists and Cynics alike are watching these rival approaches with more than keen interest.


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