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Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford outlines the dilemmas and policy options faced by the international community when dealing with Bad Leaders

In a few weeks’ time the United States of America will have a new President. That new President may or  may not aspire to serve two terms. But HE OR SHE will know almost to the minute how long either the one or two terms will last.

This is why a US presidential election is not only a momentous political occasion. It’s a striking moral moment, signifying a specific attitude to power and its limits.

Today? World leader, commander in chief of the most powerful army in human history. Tomorrow? Thank you sir – your time is up. Please hand over the Oval Office desk keys and leave the premises. It’s time for you to enjoy writing your memoirs, setting up the presidential library, and raking it in on the after-dinner speaking circuit.

Contrast this situation with the Tragedy of the Bad Leader. A Bad Leader is a leader who stays in power for far too long, even when it is blindingly obvious that his or her policies are making everything worse for their own people.

Bad Leaders aren’t interested in limited government. They ruthlessly cling to power at almost any cost to everyone but themselves. This gives them a weird freedom of action; they enjoy policy options denied to ‘normal’ leaders who answer to mere voters or inner conscience.

The last century gave the world Bad Leaders on a stupendous scale. Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Pol Pot. These and others did not merely impose ruinous economic policies whose incalculable opportunity costs rippled down the decades far into the future. To achieve their insane collectivist ends they massacred, starved or otherwise wiped out millions of their own people.

Hitler and Hitlerism were defeated, allowing the Allies to try to ‘de-Nazify’ Germany once and for all. Stalin and Mao both died in office and were given honourable funerals. Their top Party stooges eventually intoned that they made ‘grave mistakes,’ as if mass killing on a mind-boggling scale is a regrettable technical error. There is no honest reckoning with what happened. How can there be, without the whole rotten system being swept aside?

Thus when Soviet communism crumbled there was no wholesale ‘de-Communisation’ in Russia and most of the former Soviet Republics – no sustained attempt to face up to the past, including severely punishing the worst surviving state criminals. Western governments refuse even to think about it: it might be ‘destabilising.’ Lenin was left to moulder proudly in Red Square. Soviet communist mass murderers remained in places of honour in or by the Kremlin Wall.

This is why even after such sustained cruelty (if not pure evil), these revolting leaders somehow retain a mystique of unassailable impossible ‘greatness.’ It’s as if they prod something deep and dirty in our brains that we’d much rather ignore:

“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 and factories, universities, 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? And, if so, what now? What does it all mean?

Today’s Bad Leaders, such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, operate on a smaller scale, keeping their badness within their own borders. They have massacred or executed ‘only’ thousands, not millions. Yet for what? Look at the numbers: after these leaders’ long boastful decades in power, the Cubans and Zimbabwans are scarcely better off. Compare their shameful records with other countries that have used those decades to grow and modernise.

Other Bad Leaders, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, both ruin their own countries and export the consequences, as refugees or wider instability. In Assad’s case he faces a life or death battle for survival, but he also wants to show the Syrian masses and the rest of us how strong and resilient he is. How to respond to a Bad Leader whose very perniciousness in exporting badness sharply raises the international costs, but also may be a weird source of domestic strength?

World leaders at this point heave a sigh and open the battered policy box marked Sticks and Carrots.


As Iraq showed, direct, drastic international interventions to topple Bad Leaders are problematic, expensive and have unpleasant unforeseen consequences. Governments therefore try indirect ‘negative’ measures to make the Bad Leader calm down, typically economic sanctions on the country in question and/or more targeted sanctions against specific people close to the Bad Leader. The core logic of sanctions is to give the local population (and key regime cronies) an incentive to move against the Bad Leader, or at least make the leader fear for his or her position as sanctions drag the economy down.

Even if the international community has the discipline and stamina to apply sanctions effectively (a heroic assumption) these incentives work only if the leader is not sufficiently repressive to keep the population cowed into submission. But Champions League Bad Leaders may welcome sanctions as a sign of their own importance. The Bad Leader’s media thunder to the population that economic hardships are caused by bullying foreigners, while they and their most trusted stooges get even richer through sanctions-busting.

In other words, sanctions are complicated. What about the International Criminal Court (ICC)? Surely the threat of ICC indictment keeps leaders Not-so-Bad? Not if you’re Sudan’s President Al-Bashir, whose ICC indictment lists all sorts of ghastly crimes yet who blithely travels to be received with honour in many countries.

More generally, ideas for intervening against Bad Leaders can easily end up in a thicket of prickly human rights or other legal issues. How far does domestic legislation allow a government to go in refusing visas to a Bad Leader’s family members, or seizing their private property? You have to blow up thousands of the Bad Leader’s troops as per the laws of war simply assassinating the Bad Leader in a drone attack and sparing countless lives is murder!


Offering positive inducements for good behaviour might in fact work, but it almost never happens. It opens the notorious diplomatic conundrum: should Bad Leaders be ‘rewarded’ for behaving less badly?  If they are rewarded, won’t they create more problems to get more ‘reward’ and win undeserved respectability as a problem-solver, as Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević did time and again? Yet if they aren’t rewarded, they have no positive incentive to cooperate.

If a Bad Leader does make a radical change of course to meet reasonable international expectations, as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi did to such impressive effect, do world leaders have some sort of responsibility to help him when things start to slide? Or does each Bad Leader do well to have a personal escape plan ready and well oiled?

Finally, these days there’s no easy fall-back position of a calibrated policy of ‘positive engagement.’ Why are you engaging with this appalling person? What about his victims? Don’t you care?

In short, there’s no good way to deal with Bad Leaders. Yet doing nothing is rarely an option.

No Western politician, when confronted by grim TV images of some or other avoidable disaster, will give the honest answer:  that problems elsewhere on the planet are none of her or his business and might not be ‘solvable’ whatever the international community tries to do.  Nor do Western politicians like to acknowledge that the best way for a war to end is for one or other side ruthlessly to win it, then impose new realities on the losers.


If you’re thinking about being a Bad Leader, the record shows that a policy of ‘the worse, the better’ pays off. And if you manage to murder millions of people but somehow die of natural causes, you might achieve a certain grim greatness.









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