There is a close contest under way to choose the most embarrassing aspect of our Libyan misadventure: Is it the utter fecklessness of American and NATO power in the field, the murkiness of the result being sought, or the wider incoherence of the Obama administration’s perspective on the “Arab Spring,” one day declaring that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is “not a dictator,” demanding his ouster the next, and then going on to declare hands-off in Syria because its bloodthirsty ruler, Bashar Assad, is a “reformer”?
The Obama administration can at least claim that a certain amount of opacity or ambiguity is necessary in dealing with a region of such immense instability and political immaturity. The intellectual class that had come to regard Qaddafi as a more or less normal ruler with potentially reasonable or liberal inclinations has no such excuse, and their self-deception has had the consequence of enabling the policy incoherence of our political leaders.
It is one thing to accept the existence of tyrants as a practical matter, but it is debilitating to take the next step and whitewash their characters. Qaddafi has been among the worst of the worst since his rise to power in the late 1960s — calling Libya under Qaddafi a rogue state is an insult to rogues everywhere. This is the man who in the 1970s wanted to use a borrowed Egyptian submarine to sink the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner and who routinely sent assassination squads abroad to kill Libyan exiles. “It is the duty of the Libyan people constantly to liquidate their opponents . . . at home and abroad, everywhere,” Qaddafi declared. He once ordered the assassination of an American ambassador to Egypt; only a stern warning from Washington, tipped to the plot, dissuaded him. At one point in the 1980s, Qaddafi was supplying arms to guerrilla insurgencies in 45 countries, arming the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and providing $300 million in weaponry for the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. About a third of African nations, many of them fellow despotisms, refused to have diplomatic relations with Libya. Qaddafi crushed several coup attempts against him the old-fashioned way: with mass executions of opponents.
But when Qaddafi, under mounting diplomatic and economic pressure, renounced his nuclear-weapons program in 2003 and agreed at last to compensate the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing, it was all the opening the experts needed to rehabilitate the Libyan loon. Ray Takeyh, senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, pronounced in the Washington Post that “Qaddafi’s recent rhetoric and behavior hint at a genuine ideological conversion. The collapse of the Soviet Union, a growing interest in Africa and an emerging disdain for Arab politics led him to offer a new vision for his restive nation,” one that supposedly included liberalizing markets and encouraging more foreign investment. (Notably absent was any offer to make restitution for the foreign assets he seized back in the 1970s, but never mind.) British sociologist Anthony Giddens visited Qaddafi in his tent in 2006 and wrote afterward that “Qaddafi’s ‘conversion’ may have been driven partly by the wish to escape sanctions, but I get the strong sense that it is authentic and that there is a lot of motive power behind it.” Dartmouth professor Dirk Vandewalle explained on NPR recently that Qaddafi’s bizarre squad of all-female “Amazon” bodyguards was not evidence of the usual tyrant’s indulgence in kinkiness, but arose from his “attempt to improve the situation of Libyan women.”
But the gold standard for moral blindness to Qaddafi’s character and regime belongs to Rutgers University political scientist Benjamin Barber (“the internationally renowned political theorist,” as he describes himself in his latest press release), who until mid-February was a board member of the Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, the outfit Qaddafi’s son Saif operated as a forum for “complaints about torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances.” Who needs Amnesty International when you’ve got Saif Qaddafi on the job? Barber was the ideal Libyan lackey, having written in the Washington Post in 2007: “Qaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world . . . . Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Qaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials if Libya is to join the global system.”