Today President Barack Obama has succeeded where President Ronald Regan had failed—in removing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi from the face of the earth.
Certainly, the method was messy. Apparently Gaddafi was pulled from a car in the outskirts of his hometown of Sirte, briefly beaten, and summarily killed by a Misrata militia. A cellphone video of Gaddafi’s last desperate moments were quickly sent to Al Jazeera and rocketed around the world. His killers were proud of their work and did not hide their faces or their joy.
This happy murder has already set off critics who are revolted by what they see as bloodthirsty barbarians celebrating the end of a man who could have been given a fair trial. Let’s stop this smug attempt at moral superiority in its tracks.
Nothing should cloud our joy at Gaddafi’s departure. Gaddafi funded wars across Africa, contributed to the misery in Darfur by encouraging attacks by the Zaghawa tribe, and underwrote terrorists from the Irish Republican Army to the ill-named Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. He helped create the Polisario Front, which is now a key ally of Al Qaeda in North Africa, and never met a brutal African dictator he didn’t pay to keep in power. He backed the murder of 270 people aboard a Pan Am jet that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the bombing of a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen. At home, he tortured and killed political opponents, denied the equal rights of women, and imprisoned homosexuals for the sole crime of falling in love. Under his rule—the longest in the Arab world since World War II—many of his people lived in painful poverty familiar to characters of the Bible while he spent his nation’s petrodollars like Paris Hilton on Amazonian bodyguards, empty palaces, and European shopping trips to for his relatives. He eagerly worked with the CIA in receiving Islamic militants as prisoners, whom he tortured and killed without trial.
When Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril announced Gaddafi’s death, he began with the words: “We have been waiting for this moment for a long time.” Libyans had been waiting for this moment for more than 40 years, and victims of the Lockerbie bombing for more than 24 years. A little joy at the tardy arrival of justice is not out of place.
The happiness felt was not bloodlust, but relief and closure. The chest-crushing fear of the Gaddafi regime has finally eased. One Libyan told me by cellphone: “I feel like I can breathe for the first time in my life.” Libyans interviewed on Al Jazeera said the same thing. And the people of Libya now know with certainty that they will have a fresh start at building their country. Perhaps they will actually have the liberal, multiparty democracy that the new government’s spokesmen promise. The future, at last, is in their hands.
Americans tend to forget that dictatorship is a state of slow-moving war by the rulers against the ruled. And we forget that dictatorships usually end in the deaths of dictators: Mussolini on the lamppost, Hitler in the bunker, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu at the firing squad.
One of the reasons that we forget these two basic facts of dictatorship (that dictatorship is a civil war and that dictators usually die by the sword they swing) is that Eastern Europe, which had a pre-dictatorial history of independent cultural and political institutions, turned out pretty well. Transitions were generally not bloody, and senior members of the former regime were treated fairly. Germany even gave East German spymaster Markus Wolf a government pension and let him peacefully retire. In the rest of the world, independent institutions are rare, and dictators are generally replaced by other dictators (Iran, Indonesia) or by anarchy (Syria, Yemen). So any dictator who gets in the game knows how it will end. Surviving at least five assassination attempts since 1969, Gaddafi knew that killers are often killed.
Nor should the details of Gaddafi’s death or the spontaneous delight of Libya’s people dissuade us from working with the new transitional government. There is no reason to doubt that the Libyan government wanted to give him a fair trial. Mahmoud Shammam, the chief spokesman of the Transitional National Council, told The New York Times: “This is the day of real liberation. We were serious about giving him a fair trial. It seems God has some other wish.”
But the Libyan government never had custody of Gaddafi. He fled and ultimately fell into the hands of one of more than 30 militias over which the government has very little control. The government can’t even locate Gaddafi’s corpse.
There are encouraging signs of moderation among the transitional government. When the new Libyan leadership met with Sen. Marco Rubio a few weeks ago, they didn’t ask for tanks or information on Libyan dissidents abroad, as Gaddafi once did. They asked for medical treatment for fighters and civilians who had lost arms, legs, or eyes. And, incredibly, they offered to reimburse the U.S. government for these medical treatments out of funds frozen during Gaddafi’s reign.
So far, President Obama’s policy toward Libya is looking pretty good. Sure, he could have intervened more quickly to save civilian lives and said more clearly that the goal of the intervention was the end of Gaddafi’s rule. It would have been better if he sought the permission of Congress and not, like President Jefferson, depended solely on his inherent constitutional powers to take on the successor regime to the Barbary pirates. Let’s not forget though, that Congress did fund the president’s Libyan adventure—giving it the color of constitutional assent.
If the president had sat on the sidelines, as many people on the right and left advised, the Libyan war might have dragged on for years. The result would have been a failed state, mountains of dead civilians, and a tsunami of refugees flooding into Europe—as we saw during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s. Thanks to Obama’s action, that nightmare was averted.
The world is safer now that Gaddafi is gone and something like peace is descending on Libya. We may even end up with a new, quasi-democratic ally in North Africa. Obama and America have won.