For dictators, it is no longer easy to get away from it all. Just ask Col. Moammar Gaddafi. As he tries to fend off Libya’s rebels and NATO’s no-fly zone shrinks his dominion to a sliver of real estate, he may be seriously contemplating his Plan E. Exile, that is. The trouble is, Africa’s so-called “king of kings”doesn’t have many choices. Gaddafi’s brutal treatment of Libyan citizens would make him an unwelcome house guest for any country that wants to have a semblance of a relationship with the United States or much of Europe. No Asian nation wants the headache of a dictatorial diva. Thirty-one African countries have signed on to the International Criminal Court, which probably would put Gaddafi at too much risk of ending up at The Hague. And most of his fellow Arab autocrats are hardly in a position to offer anyone a safe haven these days. Plus, if he chose a regime in his own back yard, there would be a fairly good chance he’d have to flee again — and no one likes to move twice. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that “people close to” Gaddafi are making overtures around the world, looking for an out. But when the Libyan leader and his sons hunt for retirement destinations, they are going to come up with a very short list. If they do fuel up the jet and try to make an escape, here are a handful of locales they may try:
Pros: Hugo Chavez has been outspoken in his defense of the Libyan dictator and likes to calls Gaddafi a friend. Plus, his antipathy for the United States would probably make him an eager host for any enemy of the yanqui imperialists. For his part, Gaddafi is said to have had an enchanting time two years ago on the picturesque Venezuelan island of Margarita, where he found time to shop for jewelry and digital cameras.
Cons: Chavez’s own political future is very much in question. His party suffered its biggest defeat in parliamentary elections in September, and his personal popularity is on the decline, having fallen from more than 70 percent in 2006 to just over 50 percent today. Recently, his outlandish statements — such as his speculation that capitalism may have killed life on Mars — make him sound almost as unstable as, well, Gaddafi. The only thing more unhinged may be the Venezuelan economy, which has one of the world’s highest inflation rates.
Odds: 3 to 1
Pros: Closer to home, Gaddafi could seek shelter in the brutal regime of President Robert Mugabe. The Zimbabwean leader is very much a 20th-century-style dictator, ready to use death squads and outright terror to cow his people into submission. So, where many African dictatorships appear wobbly, Mugabe’s death grip on his country remains firm.
Cons: Mugabe is 87, and there is little guarantee that a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe would be safe for the Gaddafi clan. Plus, a new place in Zimbabwe could be expensive. Mugabe doesn’t do anything out of the kindness of his heart, so he would probably demand more than a few suitcases of Gaddafi’s stolen oil money.
Odds: 5 to 1
Pros: They’ve put out the welcome mat. This East African nation was the first to suggest that Gaddafi could plop down inside its borders. “We have soft spots for asylum-seekers,” a spokesman for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said this past week. “Gaddafi would be allowed to live here if he chooses to do so.” Museveni, who has been in power for 25 years, has condemned the NATO-led mission in Libya.
Cons: Uganda has signed on to the International Criminal Court. The court’s chief prosecutor has said he will decide whether to indict Gaddafi by May. If Museveni ever wavered in his resolve, Gaddafi could quickly become a bargaining chip. And the last thing a former dictator wants is his day in court.
Odds: 15 to 1
Pros: When it struck oil a few years ago, this tiny West African country became the world’s newest petrol-powered dictatorship. With his coffers overflowing, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. He also may be sympathetic to aging strongmen. In fact, if Gaddafi were forced to flee, Obiang would replace him as Africa’s longest-serving dictator.
Cons: Alas, Obiang may actually care what people think. In 2008, he tried to fund a UNESCO prize — in his own name — for scientists who make contributions to the “quality of human life.” (The global organization ultimately declined to award the prize.) He may also be craving respect for his chairmanship of the African Union. Money may not buy respect, but taking in Gaddafi would hardly lower the price tag.
Odds: 25 to 1
Pros: Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali is already holed up there. Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif had an extended stay. And Idi Amin lived out his last remaining days in the kingdom. When it comes to dictators in trouble, the Saudis leave the light on.
Cons: Too bad, then, that Gaddafi is on such bad terms with King Abdullah. In 2004, Gaddafi was accused of plotting to have Abdullah assassinated. And five years later, in a very public snub during an Arab summit meeting, he told Abdullah that “you were created by Britain and are protected by the United States.” It may be awkward to now ask for the king’s protection.
Odds: 50 to 1
Ousted dictators have always had to make sacrifices when their rule ends in exile, trading in the absurd luxuries and excesses of their former life for the safety and security that come from being on foreign soil. No one stands at attention when they walk into a room; they can no longer have their enemies jailed or humiliated on the slightest whim. One can imagine them pacing their new quarters late into the night, arguing with themselves over where and when they went wrong. But hopefully, a few of those still clinging to power will look at Gaddafi’s paltry options and draw a lesson: It may be better to beat an exit early, while there is still a place — any place — to call home.
William J. Dobson, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and senior editor for Asia at Newsweek International who is writing a book about dictators.