A leader (that’s British for editorial) in tomorrow’s Telegraph, entitled Be gentler to dictators, takes off from the murder indictment of Pakistan’s former President Pervez Mushharaf and argues that dictators should be allowed to live in exile rather than be prosecuted–or worse. “One of the biggest reasons why dictators cling so obsessively to power is that they know what awaits them if they lose office,” the Telegraph editorialist (leaderist?) writes. “For the sake of a healthy political system, former rulers should be allowed to retire with dignity.”

There’s a prudential argument for the Telegraph’s position. Give dictators/strongmen/coup leaders a way out, and they may take it rather than subject themselves and (if they care about them) their fellow citizens to a bloody struggle. Musharraf must be wishing that he had not left what the Telegraph describes as “a life of comfortable exile near the Edgware Road,” a thoroughfare lined with heavily Muslim-patronized shops. Similarly, Hosni Mubarak must be wishing he could have retired from office a few years ago and settled in a villa on the French Riviera. Certainly the possibility of a comfortable exit would induce some tyrants to leave rather than remain and fight. The idea struck me of a gated community atop one of the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean–La Ville des Tyrans, perhaps.

Yet there are tyrants and tyrants. I suppose almost no one regrets that surviving Nazi leaders were tried and most executed or imprisoned at Nuremberg in 1946. Most of us would have liked seeing Hitler facing justice there too. On the other hand, who begrudges Mikhail Gorbachev a comfortable retirement (and good speech fees), even though the regime he began to head in 1984 was clearly a tyranny. After all, he headed things in a better direction. But the international justice system is not what it was. The Nuremberg trials were completed in less than a year, while Slobodan Milosevic was indicted more than seven years before his death in his cell in The Hague, while his trial was still ongoing.

This is one of those issues on which I’m glad I don’t have to take a position. I can see the merits of arguments on both sides. I guess this will continue to be sorted out on a case-by-case basis.