The Corner

‘Just One More Failed Arab Dictator’

I asked longtime Mideast analyst Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former editor of The Middle East Quarterly, for his thoughts on the demise of the Moammar Qaddafi, our role in it, and Libya’s future.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Were you surprised to learn about Moammar Qaddafi’s death? About where he was?

MICHAEL RUBIN: It certainly was a pleasant surprise when I landed at Dulles, turned on my BlackBerry, and heard the news. That he was in his hometown suggests two things: First, it is a reminder of just how poor our intelligence has been about Libya.  There is no indication that our intelligence community knew where he was through most of the conflict. Second, and more important now, Qaddafi’s refuge in Sirte emphasizes the tribal nature of Libyan politics, and suggests the dynamics of new conflict in the future as anti-Qaddafi tribes seek a fundamental reorder that could mean a purge not only of Qaddafi loyalists, but also of members of tribes who supported him.

LOPEZ: Does it hurt his legacy as the martyr he said he wanted to be to be found hiding like a coward?

RUBIN: Anytime a dictator dies looking like a coward, it undercuts his claim to be a martyr. But Qaddafi’s last words to the Libyan forces that captured him also show his complete break from reality. Had he died at the hands of Western forces, Arabs might embrace Qaddafi’s martyrdom a bit more, but because he died at the hands of his own people, he’s just one more failed Arab dictator.

LOPEZ: Is Qaddafi’s death something to celebrate?

RUBIN: Let the Libyan people celebrate today because the truly dangerous part of the transition begins tomorrow.

LOPEZ: Does the Obama administration deserve credit or blame here?

RUBIN: Momentum matters and much blood might have been saved had Obama acted more forcefully earlier, rather than dawdling at the United Nations. Still, Obama has distinguished himself as a president who does not hesitate to make tough calls, no matter how delayed. Obama certainly gets credit for siding with the Libyan people and cutting Qaddafi loose, but the real victory is Libyan. Alas, the president diluted the benefit of his choice by his earlier decision literally to embrace Qaddafi, a picture which is burned in Libyan minds as much as Rumsfeld’s handshake with Saddam defined U.S.-Iraqi relations for more than a decade.

LOPEZ: One can never know, but based on what he said at the time: What might Ronald Reagan say today?

RUBIN: Ronald Reagan understood that Qaddafi was not worthy of diplomatic courtesy. He famously called Qaddafi “the madman of the Middle East” and described him as part of “a new, international version of Murder Incorporated.” Who knows what Reagan would have said today, but whatever it was, it would not have been infused with the diplomatic mishmash which has become the staple of our diplomatic culture over the past 20 years.

When we look at the last couple decades of U.S.-Libyan relations, one lesson becomes clear: The only way to reform a rogue ruler is to quarantine, overthrow, or kill him, not treat him as a partner. Rogue rulers do not change, they just seek advantage.

LOPEZ: What is going to happen next? Who are the players competing for power? Who has the real power?

RUBIN: Now comes the truly dangerous part: The only thing uniting the National Transitional Council was common animosity toward Qaddafi. Now that he is dead, various factions may begin internecine fighting in earnest. The West may talk about reconciliation, and even some Libyans may, but where the West believes reconciliation means forgiveness, many Libyans understand the term to mean reordering and revenge.

The Obama administration and Western governments may embrace democracy for Libya, but rhetoric is not enough. Obama must make a fundamental choice: Which is more important, democracy in the process of reconstituting a new government or democracy as the result?  The State Department often favors the former, to the detriment of the later. When we try to ensure an even playing field, we disadvantage liberals because no other power playing in the sandbox accepts our rules. The Saudis and Qataris will support the Islamists. Once we might have counted on Egypt and Tunisia to lobby for reason, but now Egypt also embraces the Muslim Brotherhood and radical groups, and Tunisia might also after this week’s elections. President Obama may pride himself on leading from behind, but if we are not willing to privilege our allies, then we are simply behind.

I am especially worried about our willingness to work through countries such as the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. Qatar is not an altruistic state but, as Oxford University scholar Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi recently pointed out to me, it consistently promotes Sunni Islamist factions to the detriment of liberals.

LOPEZ: How does this likely affect things in the region?

RUBIN: I worry about civil war. Even if Libyans truly strive for democracy, the Egyptians and Algerians may have other plans. When vacuums develop in the Middle East, seldom do the forces of stability triumph, especially when the West takes a hands-off approach.

More broadly, Europe must worry about mass migration. This is the reason why the United States has always been more proactive than our European allies with regard to democratization and transformative diplomacy in the Middle East, and especially in the Mediterranean basin.

LOPEZ: Does it put our troops in danger?

RUBIN: Our failure to secure Qaddafi’s weapons caches puts everyone in danger, our civilians even more than our troops.

LOPEZ: Can the U.S. help now?

RUBIN: What the White House needs to do is define with some precision what we would like to see emerge in Libya within, say, two years and then craft a strategy to get there. Alas, the State Department culturally appears incapable of implementing any long-term, coherent strategy to advance American interests. We must work to advantage those whose accession is most in our interests, and disadvantage those factions whose power would be anathema to us. We need to channel resources to our friends, and interrupt the flow of resources to our potential adversaries.

LOPEZ: Are there legitimate and constructive roles for the United Nations? For NATO? For anyone else?

RUBIN:  Ad hoc coalitions can be much more effective than the United Nations. After all, while American diplomats view the U.N. through its articulated ideals, other countries use the U.N. to provide legitimacy to far more cynical aims. There is no reason why we should do anything to empower Russia and China in Libya, when they cast their lot with the losing side.

NATO should remain concerned with loose Libyan weaponry which has already fallen into the wrong hands, and might act to suppress any terrorist entity which seeks to take advantage of the vacuum. 

LOPEZ: Does this provide an opening for Republican presidential candidates to articulate clear thinking about the region? What might that sound like?

RUBIN: Both Bush’s policies and Obama’s policies have their merits. If we combine the best aspects of both, we will have a pretty good foreign policy.

Bush articulated the change that was necessary for the region, but the gap between his rhetoric and the reality of his policies undercut American credibility. Frankly, Obama suffers from the same problem. If Obama talks about hope and change, and then Secretary of State Clinton embraces Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a reformer, then we breed a corrosive cynicism throughout the region.

Behind the rhetoric, Bush had greater moral clarity. But his aides served him poorly in implementing his vision. It is fair to fault the Bush administration for a naïve approach to defining democratic legitimacy. The White House and State Department should never have lent legitimacy to elections in which parties which maintained armed militias competed.

Obama does not understand the importance of sticking by friends. We should not force friends and democracies to make concessions to terrorists. Ever. Nor should we ever treat foreign aid and assistance as an entitlement. It’s time to curtail dramatically our foreign aid and focus on what is effective. Republicans should put an end to the notion that spending is a metric by which to gauge assistance. USAID wastes billions of dollars and has little to show for its success. Anyone who confuses convocation of a conference with progress has spent too much time in Washington.

Obama sees himself as a great internationalist. He won the Nobel Prize upon his promise of revitalizing diplomacy.  But even Obama’s supporters must recognize that the president’s diplomacy consistently fails when addressing our adversaries. The United Nations is a great place to discuss problems, but overreliance on the body is a waste of time. Obama has been successful, but his victories have not come on a piece of paper or at a conference table, but with bullets and drones. As I wrote in National Review five years ago, we should recognize the value of targeted assassination, and it seems Obama has. Targeted assassination can achieve aims with precision and with a finality that no amount of diplomacy will ever achieve.

Too many Democrats and Republicans are deaf to the importance of ideology in the region. It’s not enough to promote democracy. We must recognize that certain ideological trends in the Middle East are antithetical to American interests. We must recognize that terrorism is a tactic; the real threat comes from the radical Islamist ideology that motivates so much of it.

We cannot take our strength and power for granted. Our rhetoric and diplomacy are meaningless if we do not have the military to back our words with the potential for action. Too many Democrats and many Republicans do not understand that once we lose a military capability, it’s a multigenerational project to reconstitute it. Nor do many politicians and pundits understand that if we do not shape the world, our adversaries will do so in a way which will make a mockery of the values many Western internationalists hold today.