Muammar Qaddafi is dead. What significance does that fact have? Several observations and questions come to mind.
First, few in Libya and virtually no one elsewhere will mourn his passing. Libya is rid of its vicious tyrannical leader and the world is rid of a terrorist and sponsor of terrorism.
Second, will the defeat and death of Qaddafi be instructive to other tyrants — say, those in Syria, Iran, or North Korea? What lessons will they take from Qaddafi’s demise? An optimist might say that one lesson for the tyrants is that oppressed people may rise up if given a chance, with lethal consequences for the oppressor. But a more likely response of the tyrants still in power would be to prevent the oppressed from ever having the chance of rising up against them. And, of course, the tyrants in Syria, Iran, and North Korea must ask themselves whether the oppressed Libyans would have had a chance of toppling Qaddafi without Western support — air cover and intelligence and aid — and whether that support would have been forthcoming had Qaddafi had WMD and the means of delivering it. More likely than not, the tyrants of the world will see Qaddafi’s defeat and elimination as more evidence that he was foolish to give up his nuclear and other WMD programs in the middle of the last decade.
Third, the defeat and death of Qaddafi cannot be viewed as a triumph of Western policy in general and U.S. policy in particular. President Obama called for Qaddafi’s ouster early in the conflict and then did nothing about it, never asking Congress for authority to use force, refusing to target Qaddafi himself, and then refusing to acknowledge that he was being targeted when NATO clearly was doing so — even insisting that the U.S. was not engaged in “hostilities” in Libya. The dallying and confusion of the Western response will be remembered just as much as the fact of Qaddafi’s demise.
Finally, Qaddafi’s death is not relevant to whether the so-called Arab Spring really is a spring in Libya. Reports that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb secured Qaddafi’s weapons for their own future terrorist efforts and related reports that they are seeking a role in Libya’s future are worrisome. Libya’s transitional authorities this month prevented exiled Libyan Jew David Gerbi from reopening Tripoli’s synagogue and then forced him to flee the country. This too is very discouraging. And the Draft Constitutional Charter of the Libyan opposition promises in Article 1 of its general provisions that “the principal legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia)” — also discouraging. It suggests that the Qaddafi dictatorship may well be followed by a new authoritarian regime that is hostile to the West, not a liberal, democratic one.
In short, while Qaddafi’s demise — without a torturous trial — is cause to be pleased, it is no evidence that we can be less vigilant about threats to U.S. and Western interests from post-“spring” Libya.
— Jack David, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for combating weapons of mass destruction and negotiations policy from 2004 to 2006.