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Strongmen and Conflict – Another Tool in the Box
Strongmen and Conflict – Another Tool in the Box

Dictators use fear as a tool to stay in power. Politicians use various techniques to govern as well. In liberal democracies governance is based on incentives, good governance, rule of law, and service. Strongmen use other techniques to govern, such as fear, outside threats, coercion, and incentives.

Another technique to govern seen largely in totalitarian states is possible conflict perceived or actual. A strongman uses conflict to detract from the lack of civil liberties, a weak economy, and other challenges to an oppressed society.

In liberal democracies this use of conflict is not unheard of to help govern. Weak, insecure, and politically threatened politicians use conflict as a rally point, a distraction from political and legal threat.

Recently, America has ramped up its distaste of a failed socialist South American state and sudden concern for its people. That state is Venezuela. As the Trump administration flails about in trouble, the shadow of the Mueller investigation looms large over what is called a “team of vipers”.

The central figure in this debacle is a threatened president who is in political trouble and possible criminal liability. He needs a distraction. What about a war with Venezuela? The basis is to “free the Venezuelan people from a tyrant.”

The hope is to take Trump’s legal and political problems off the front page and to rally the American people around this just cause of freeing Venezuela from itself. As a political point America is great once again.

Having failed in his attempt to distract American citizens from his political problems by manufacturing an invasion of brown people, terrorist, and rapists coming up from the south along the Mexican border, Trump’s team of vipers needs another distraction…a war with a weak and unstable Latin American country.

International norms and law preclude a member state of the United Nations to use force against another member state absent a legal basis to do so to restore an imbalance to international peace and security. The cornerstone to the United Nations is settling disputes peacefully resorting to force only as a last resort.

Unilateral action, absent self defense, is generally illegal. Without a United Nations mandate, such action may be construed as an act of aggression, an international crime.

The rule of law is not a standard this administration holds itself up to, so whatever Trump directs will be another manufactured event to distract us from the real problems America faces, a possible criminal in office who is dismantling all this country stands for: respect, dignity, goodwill, hope, and an optimistic view of itself and the world. A manufactured war with Venezuela is not the answer.

Such an action weakens the United Nations paradigm and sets a bad example, as other strongmen will seize the moment and take their own unilateral action now and into the future. This happened in the early 1930’s under Hitler and Mussolini. The result was World War Two.


David M. Crane was the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal in West Africa, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is the Founder of the Syrian and Yemeni Accountability Projects and Principal of Justice Consultancy, LLC. Professor Crane is also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Syracuse University College of Law.


Suggested citation:  David M. Crane, Strongmen and Conflict – Another Tool in the Box, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Jan. 31, 2019,

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