When the US sheriff rides in . . .: Disposing of a tyrant does not always solve a country's problems, says Richard Dowden

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THIS weekend has seen Jean-Bertrand Aristide restored to power in Haiti by US troops, and Raoul Cedras, the usurper, driven ignominiously from the country. Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, has continued to pull faces at Washington, jerking the media and US forces back to the Gulf and prompting some to ask whether the Americans should 'finish the job' and dispose of him once and for all.

Washington has always publicly disavowed any attempts to kill President Saddam, though it stretches the imagination to believe it has not tried. But it has stated that this is not its policy: 'The US government prohibits any of its employees from engaging in or conspiring to engage in assassinations.

We prohibit indirect participation in assassination such as requesting any person to engage in assassinations. This longstanding prohibition . . .

reflects a strong policy and moral objection to assassination.'

This leaked telegram, dated 23 October 1992, was in reply to a suggestion from the head of the Senegalese army, engaged in peace-keeping operations in Liberia, that the US should 'eliminate' Charles Taylor, one of the rebel leaders. The outrage - or panic - in the response from the State Department, to the suggestion that the US government should kill someone, is palpable.

This reaction was so emphatic that one feels the State Department doth protest too much. But the refusal to contemplate assassination as an instrument of justice also prompts the question: why not? Tyrannicide has a long and honourable history.

In the Western world it begins with the gay couple, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who killed the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus in about 510BC.

Their motives may not have been entirely pure - some think they stabbed Hipparchus to death because of a lovers' tiff - but they were honoured throughout the Greek and Roman worlds as tyrant slayers and bringers of freedom, justice and democracy. They are said to have inspired Brutus and Cassius to kill Julius Caesar.

In that world a tyrant was someone who ruled for his own advantage, not for the common good; but the word has come to mean a usurper or illegitimate ruler who governs cruelly. The theory of tyrannicide was developed by the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who argued that those who killed tyrants should be praised. But he set stringent and pragmatic conditions to such actions. There must be a reasonable chance of success and the disturbance caused by the killing 'must not be so excessive that the people suffer more from it than from the tyrannical regime'.

Machiavelli, writing two centuries later, suggested it was better to leave such evils alone and negotiate. 'It is better to temporise than attack it violently,' he wrote. That sounds more modern and sensible, but no one would argue that Claus von Stauffenberg and others who tried to kill Hitler should have temporised.

With the flight of Cedras from Haiti, the Americans have at last succeeded in removing a tyrant without creating even greater problems. Since the disaster in Lebanon in 1983, the US has either failed or achieved only half-baked success in its foreign ventures. Grenada, Panama, Kuwait and Somalia, all attempts to change governments by force, went awry or left more problems than they solved.

In Haiti it is significant that the US used the same tactics as it had in Somalia. In both instances it intervened with the co-operation of the people it was planning to destroy. In Somalia, the marines landed under the aegis of General Mohamed Farah Aideed, who controlled much of Mogadishu. He even provided Robert Oakley, the US Special Representative, with a house and guards. In Oakley's words, the aim was gradually to diminish his power - like plucking the feathers of a sleeping bird. Unfortunately, the bird woke up. The Americans then denounced Aideed as a warlord and thug but failed to understand the strength of clan loyalty for him.

It is hard for outsiders to see that a brutal and much-feared tyrant is often supported by the very people he appears to oppress, especially when the whole society feels attacked from the outside. The US sheriff rides into town to find that the townspeople are defending the baddies. He may be a tyrant but he's our tyrant, they say.

In Haiti the American troops landed by agreement with Cedras and were to work 'in close co-operation' with the Haitian armed forces. Once ashore, however, the American military turned on them. Unlike in Somalia, the men with guns in Haiti do not derive their power from the society itself. When the Americans tried to peel off the layer of gunmen in Somalia, they found the gunmen were rooted in the society - even women and children fought alongside them. In Haiti, however, the Americans found that disarming the gunmen had the support of the people ('Not just any crowd,' as Aquinas wrote, 'but a group associated through consent for a common usefulness').

There are many other candidates for removal, or tyrannicide. It is a moral certainty, for example, that many lives would be saved if Jonas Savimbi were removed from Angola and the case of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire is worth an honest debate. President Saddam is a different matter. Much as he irritates America and its allies, much as he is a brutal tyrant, attempts to secure his overthrow by impoverishing the Iraqi people seem to have backfired. His grip on power has not been diminished and, by identifying himself as the embodiment of the Iraqi nation, he may even have strengthened it.

However much he may look like a tyrant from the outside, President Saddam has successfully portrayed himself as a saviour to many Iraqis and others who fear the domination of America. If the West were to have a hand in his overthrow or death, would the world welcome this act of tyrannicide as a blow for freedom? The conflict between the West and President Saddam is perhaps no more than a lovers' tiff, anyway. When he invaded Iran in 1980, President Saddam had the tacit support of Washington. As a British ambassador in Baghdad said at the height of the Iran-Iraq war: 'Saddam Hussein may be a bloody butcher, but he's on our side.'

(Photograph omitted)