If Muammar Qaddafi has really been killed — a big if, since so many of the Libyan rebels’ military communiques have proven premature — it raises a lot of questions, besides being very welcome news in the sense that Qaddafi has the blood of tens of thousands on his hands. He won’t be missed by the Libyan people, or the Arab world at large, although he will perhaps be lamented in Venezuela.
Was he killed as a combatant on the battlefield, or through a targeted assassination? On the ground or from the air, and by whom? What happened to his various sons? And what now do the rebels do with surviving hundreds, if not thousands, of Qaddafi’s black African, non-Islamic mercenaries?
In an ideal world — never possible on the battlefield — it would have been preferable to capture and try him in the manner of Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. And as we saw with the removal of Milosevic, the Taliban, Saddam, and Mubarak, few know exactly what happens next, although in Qaddafi’s case it is hard to envision anyone expressing regret over his passing. I wish we could say that with Qaddafi’s end, we are at the end of things, but something suggests that now begins an entirely unpredictable chapter.
In any case, there was always something not quite right about the Libyan war. There was, on the one hand, relief that Americans were not involved on the ground against such an odious thug, delight that such a terrorist killer was finally getting his just deserts, and the initial admiration for Libyan “moderates” who joined the resistance and promised a better day for a long-suffering people.
But on the other hand, there were just as many nagging doubts: growing realization that the rebels were often mob-like with plenty of Islamists; the weird metamorphosis of Qaddafi in just weeks from a Western rehab darling, whose money and offspring had launched a successful make-over from London to New York, replete with art shows and fellowships for American academics; the strange use and abuse of the U.N. mandate, the West bragging that it got one and then almost immediately exceeding humanitarian help and no-fly zones by bombing military targets and going after the Qaddafi elite from the air; arch Bush-Cheney critic Harold Koh now writing briefs explaining why the Obama administration did not need congressional authorization to go to war against a country that was no longer a strategic threat to the U.S.; the strange urgency from Britain and France to intervene in this nearby oil-rich, people-short huge Texas-style country, odder still given French lectures about Iraq and the recent British-French outreach to Qaddafi. “Leading from behind” seemed strange as well; how “behind” was it really? And how did a small surrounded clique hold off NATO’s big three for eight months?
In any case, unlike the Clinton administration in the Balkans or the Bush administration in Iraq, the Obama administration apparently has little desire to capture and try its thugs, on the theory that dead terrorists cause far fewer problems than live ones — as we see with the ongoing decision to prefer Predator assassinations to capture and detention at Guantanamo.
Final thoughts: The Middle East is a very different place than it was on 9/11: Saddam dead, Osama bin Laden dead, Qaddafi dead, Mubarak near dead, and Assad reeling. Much of this transition is due to the decision after 9/11 to push for radical change in the Middle East, started by George Bush and more or less continued uninterrupted by Barack Obama. After the capture of Saddam, Qaddafi saw a glimpse of his own fate; one wonders how many Middle East despots are doing the same as they view the ghoulish pictures of a seemingly dead Qaddafi that are now all over the Internet.