For a fleeing enemy, the ancient Chinese adage suggests, build a golden bridge. This week the International Criminal Court, that bastion of idealism, is trying the opposite approach.
With a flourish of paperwork, the ICC took legal aim Monday at Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif al Islam, and his military intelligence chief Abdullah al Sanussi. The intention here is laudable, but how many Libyans will this grandiose gesture add to the death toll, when Col Qaddafi refuses to face his accusers?
Charging him and his accomplices with crimes against humanity sends precisely the signal that the ICC is supposed to send: that the world will not tolerate unwanted leaders' recourse to reckless bloodshed. Especially after the idealism of the Arab Spring, this is a message many people in many countries will welcome eagerly.
The problem is that this ringing moral statement leaves the tyrant cornered. Just this week there have been signals that Col Qaddafi, or at least some members of his inner circle, were seeking to negotiate their way out of the current bloody impasse.
That option may now be closed off. Getting rid of Col Qaddafi will still require what it required before the ICC acted: sustained military and economic pressure. But now the rebels' road to Tripoli looks longer.
Embattled dictators everywhere have always had an implicit option: grab a last valise of cash and flee to gilded exile. "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti went to Paris; Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko to Morocco; Idi Amin of Uganda to Saudi Arabia; and on down the shameful roster. Most recently Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fetched up in Saudi Arabia as well.
Unjust? Certainly. But such arrangements pass an empirical test: they avoid or foreshorten civil strife (or civil war). Ideally, the strongman falls into the hands of the new government, as in Egypt this year, permitting both justice and almost-bloodless change. But "ideally" rarely happens.
The ICC has a dubious legal record - nine years, zero convictions - but ICC charges do deliver the world's revulsion and contempt, which is one reason few wanted men voluntarily surrender to the ICC's mercies.
The Arab Spring is hardening into a summer of discontent as entrenched regimes in Libya, as in Yemen and Syria, cling to power. Would the citizens of those countries choose symbolism over immediate change? We doubt it.
Rational calculation may not be directing Col Qaddafi's actions now. But if the ICC's bravado stiffens his resolve, then the ICC itself will have to answer, if not in court then to the latest Libyan widows and orphans.