The imminent collapse of Qaddafi’s regime is a major milestone not simply for the long-suffering Libyan people, but for the broader Arab uprising of 2011. Qaddafi’s ability to cling to power through brutality and slaughter had cast a dark shadow over the region for the better part of six months. In stark counterpoint to the relatively peaceful and rapid departures of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi hoped to establish a much different model for the region’s dictators: Rather than succumb to the overwhelming will of the people for political change . . . crush them by whatever means necessary. The example was certainly not lost on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad when confronted with its own popular upheaval just weeks after Qaddafi first unleashed his killing machine.
Now, with Qaddafi’s demise at hand, a major psychological blow has been struck against the region’s other tyrants who have sought to follow in his foot steps. The message has gone out: The effort to stand athwart history, and through blood and bullets deny the just demand of your people for a more decent, accountable government will, sooner or later, fail. The reverberations in Damascus will be loud and unsettling. You can bet that Assad’s head lies much uneasier today.
As welcome as Qaddafi’s downfall is, enormous challenges remain to secure the promise of Libya’s revolution. It is a society fractured along tribal and regional lines, largely bereft of functioning institutions. Months of war have only deepened animosities and suspicions. The Islamists are strong and no doubt ready to seize the day. The risks of chaos and large-scale revenge killings are real. Whether the rebels’ Transitional National Council has the power, discipline, and decency to manage a more or less peaceful, orderly transition will be put to severe test. We in the West have a considerable stake in seeing them succeed, and having Libya reenter the international system as a stable state and major oil producer, focused on using its substantial wealth to enhance the well-being of its long-neglected people. Our sustained military support for the TNC in recent months, and continued influence over the disbursement of tens of billions of dollars of frozen Libyan assets, certainly provides the United States and its major allies substantial leverage. It should be exercised, without apology, in a well-coordinated strategy to shape the post-Qaddafi era in a direction most congruous with U.S. interests.
The Obama administration can take some satisfaction in Qaddafi’s ouster. Yes, it moved too slowly in calling for his departure and, when it did finally act, its support for NATO’s campaign was far too tepid. As a result, the conflict was almost certainly prolonged and made more bloody than it needed to be, increasing the danger of turmoil, chaos and Islamist extremism’s ascendance in Qaddafi’s wake. Obama’s insistence on leading from behind further eroded already waning U.S. credibility in the region, and gave heart to other bloody-minded dictators like Assad to uncork fully their evil. All that said, we are left with this fact: More than five months ago, the President of the United States declared that a dictator with American blood on his hands, who was threatening to wipe out a significant portion of his own population, had to go. And now it appears he is gone. That kind of success is valuable coin in the game of nations, and no doubt will accrue to the benefit of the United States if expended wisely — to help see the Libyan transition through to a successful conclusion, and to expedite the end of the Assad tyranny, and the unraveling of the Iranian-led axis that poses the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East.
— John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.