Politics & Policy

The Senators Sway

Before they wanted to kill Qaddafi, they were celebrating in his tent.

John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham are the Senate’s most energetic proponents of sinking the nation ever deeper into the Libyan morass. In a joint interview on Fox last weekend, Senators McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lieberman (I., Conn.) were breathless in their rendering of the “freedom fighters” and the “Arab Spring” of spontaneous “democracy.” Friday they upped the ante with a Wall Street Journal op-ed, rehearsing yet again what an incorrigible thug Qaddafi is and how “we cannot allow [him] to consolidate his grip” on parts of Libya that he still controls.

For his part, Senator Graham (R., S.C.) told CNN Wednesday that he would like President Obama to designate Qaddafi an “unlawful enemy combatant” with an eye toward legitimizing the strongman’s assassination. He and Wolf Blitzer discussed whether the hit could be pulled off by the covert intelligence operatives President Obama has inserted in Libya. The next day, in his plaintive questioning of Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a Senate hearing, Senator Graham wondered why American air power could not just “drop a bomb on him, to end this thing.”

As a matter of law, Graham’s proposal is ludicrous — no small thanks to federal law that Graham himself helped write, about which more in an upcoming column. What was especially striking about the hearing was the tone of righteous indignation Senators Graham and McCain took in whipping the Obama administration over government blundering.

But what about their own blundering? The senators most strident about the purported need to oust Qaddafi, to crush his armed forces, and to kill him if that’s what it takes to empower the rebels, are the very senators who helped fortify Qaddafi’s military and tighten the despotic grip of which they now despair.

It was only a short time ago, in mid-August 2009, that Senators McCain, Lieberman, and Graham, along with another transnational progressive moderate, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), paid a visit to Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound. If they seem to have amnesia about it now, perhaps that’s because the main item on the agenda was their support for the Obama administration’s offer of military aid to the same thug the senators now want gone yesterday.

A government cable (leaked by Wikileaks) memorializes the excruciating details of meetings between the Senate delegation and Qaddafi, along with his son Mutassim, Libya’s “national security adviser.” We find McCain and Graham promising to use their influence to push along Libya’s requests for C-130 military aircraft, among other armaments, and civilian nuclear assistance. And there’s Lieberman gushing, “We never would have guessed ten years ago that we would be sitting in Tripoli, being welcomed by a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi.” That’s before he opined that Libya had become “an important ally in the war on terrorism,” and that “common enemies sometimes make better friends.”

On and on it goes, made all the more nauseating by the reality that nobody was under any illusion that Qaddafi had truly reformed. McCain made a point of telling the press that “the status of human rights and political reform in Libya will remain a chief element of concern.” Note the gentle diplomatic understatement: Qaddafi is — and was, as McCain well knew — a savage autocrat. Yet this brute fact was softened into “an element of concern” regarding “the status of human rights and political reform.” Pretty sharp contrast from the senator’s sardonic grilling of the U.S. defense secretary on Thursday. The McCain who was face-to-face with Qaddafi was very different from the McCain who today rails about Qaddafi. Back in the tent, none of his concern would dampen the cozy mood. The Arizonan swooned over “the many ways in which the United States and Libya can work together as partners.”

This would build on the partnership with Qaddafi that, as I’ve detailed, was struck by the Bush administration, a blunder if ever there was one. But did McCain, Lieberman, and Graham have a problem with it — because Qaddafi is an incorrigible terrorist enemy of the United States, who must be exterminated right away? If they did, perhaps they’ll enlighten us. None of these gents is exactly a wallflower when it comes to telling us what he thinks on matters great and small. If they were protesting our Qaddafi policy, the public record is strangely silent on the matter. Truth be told, it runs decidedly in the opposite direction.

As is his wont, President Obama took President Bush’s blunder and ran with it. Not only did the new administration continue Bush’s aid to Qaddafi, the aid was stepped up. In fact, Obama increased military aid to Qaddafi’s regime only a few weeks before the current crisis began — support Hillary Clinton’s State Department said would go to further strengthening Qaddafi’s air force (the one our no-fly zone is now shooting down), to train his military officers (the ones the senators now want to bomb to smithereens), and to support what the Obama administration, echoing the Bush administration, insisted was Qaddafi’s staunch anti-terrorism.

With eyes wide open, the interventionist senators abetted the U.S. aid to Qaddafi and the legitimizing of his dictatorial regime. Given that this policy has contributed mightily to Qaddafi’s current capacity to consolidate his grip on power and repress his opposition, one might think some senatorial contrition, or at least humility, would be in order. But, no. Having been entirely wrong about Qaddafi, the senators would now have us double down on Libya by backing Qaddafi’s opposition — the rebels about whom McCain, Lieberman, and Graham know a lot less than they knew about Qaddafi.

As for what they knew about Qaddafi, the story gets even worse.

It goes without saying that the interventionist senators’ case for why Qaddafi must go always comes back to his terrorist past and, in particular, to the bombing of Pan Am 103. What they neglect to mention is that at the very moment they were huddling with Qaddafi, reports were circulating that the dictator was pressuring British and Scottish authorities (with the knowledge of the Obama administration) for the release of the Lockerbie terrorist, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi. In fact, while the senators were on their Tripoli jaunt, the imminence of Megrahi’s release was so well-known that the American embassy in Libya began advising that, because a celebratory “youth rally” was being planned, American citizens should steer clear of downtown Tripoli on August 20 and 21. Contemporaneously, President Obama was pleading with Qaddafi not to give the bomber “a hero’s welcome.”

In the event, Megrahi was in fact released five days after the senators’ visit. Upon being escorted home by another Qaddafi son, Saif, the terrorist was given a hero’s welcome at the Tripoli airport by thousands of Libyans — the liberty-loving civilians we are now risking American blood and treasure to protect, from the country that, by percentage of population, sent more jihadists to fight American troops in Iraq than any other.

What has been much missed is that Qaddafi discussed the prospect of Megrahi’s triumphant return with his distinguished senatorial guests. The Wikileaks cable indicates that McCain took the lead on this issue. In its August 21 report on Megrahi, the Associated Press mentioned in passing that the senators had “warned Libyan officials of possible damage to U.S.-Libyan relations if Megrahi’s return were to be handled in the wrong fashion.”

“If Megrahi’s return were to be handled in the wrong fashion” — mull that one over for a moment. There was no Libyan threat to the United States when Obama ordered our troops into battle last week. Intervention proponents seek to fill that inconvenient gap by stressing Qaddafi’s history of anti-American terrorism. Lockerbie, among other atrocities, is what McCain, Lieberman, and Graham say makes it urgent that we remove or even kill Qaddafi, the sooner the better.

Yet, there they were in Qaddafi’s tent only a year and a half ago, amiably chatting about our new bilateral “partnership” and plans to give this terrorist sundry assistance, prominently including military aid. Hovering over the meeting is Lockerbie. Far from ancient history, it is very much front and center because Qaddafi’s chief perpetrator of the attack is on the cusp of being released. So, with this powerful a reminder of Qaddafi’s monstrousness staring them in the face, do the senators say, “Don’t you dare try to spring that bomber”? Do they declare Lockerbie to be Exhibit A in the case that Qaddafi is an incorrigible terrorist who must be removed? Do they assure Qaddafi that if he rubs our nose in that mass-murder again by feting the murderer, there will be hell to pay?

No. Instead, it was taken as a given that the Lockerbie bomber would be released at Qaddafi’s insistence. The only thing left to talk about was the fashion in which Megrahi’s return to Libya would be handled. There appears to have been none of the indignation reserved for televised Senate hearings. Echoing Obama, the senators merely insisted that Megrahi’s return to Libya be managed lest it disrupt our growing “partnership” with Qaddafi, lest it complicate the important work of bulking up his regime on the backs of American taxpayers.

Having taken the measure of his guests, and of President Obama, Qaddafi — being Qaddafi — went right ahead with the raucous celebration his regime had planned for its returning terrorist hero. And, just as Qaddafi figured, the U.S. responded by continuing to support his regime, then by increasing support for his regime, and, until a few weeks ago, by envisioning a long-range, bilateral partnership with steadily escalating support for his regime. All of this appears to have been done with nary a peep from McCain, Lieberman, and Graham.

We all make bad mistakes. For most of us, they are occasions for introspection, for saying, “I’m sorry.” In the case of Libya, the senators’ miscalculation about Qaddafi is a fine opportunity to acknowledge that we’ve already botched things badly enough, that maybe we should avoid additional entanglement in a place where we have no vital interests, risking more American lives and dollars at a time when we are militarily stretched and financially tapped out.

For most of us, a mistake is not an occasion for doubling down, for fits of pique, or for painting everybody else as the fool.

 Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.


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