The Corner

Trump Is Right That We’d Be Better Off With Qaddafi . . . Which Was the U.S. Position Until Obama and Beltway GOP Switched Sides

In response to This Is The Way to Raise Children

In a post on Sunday, Jim reports on Donald Trump’s assertion that it is “100 percent” certain that the United States would be better off with Saddam Hussein and Moamar Qaddafi in power in, respectively, Iraq and Libya. For the moment, I am going to put the Iraq question aside because we spent years debating it, it is complicated by flawed intelligence and false assumptions about how a sharia culture would take to Western democracy promotion, and I want to consider it separately (at another time) in the context of former prime minister Blair’s recent dilations.

But Trump is right about Qaddafi. I do not see how anyone can reasonably contend that we are better off with Libya as it is now – a failed state dominated by Islamists in which Americans have been killed and driven out, and ISIS and al-Qaeda both have safe haven – versus Libya under Qaddafi – an American-supported counterterrorism ally that was providing our government with intelligence regarding jihadists in hotbeds like Benghazi and Derna.

To be sure, Trump is out of his depth here. It is simply not true that Saddam Hussein “would kill terrorists immediately.” In fact, the degree to which Hussein had a cooperative relationship with al-Qaeda remains a bone of contention in the debate over whether it was a blunder to remove him. That said, Jim takes Trump to be proclaiming a policy of “forthright endorsement of brutal dictators who keep order in their countries and keep Islamist groups in check.” I will simply point out that his was U.S. policy in Libya from the post-9/11 years (when the Bush and Obama administrations politically and financially supported the Qaddafi regime) until 2011, when Obama, at the urging of Hillary Clinton’s State Department and Beltway Republican leadership, switched sides – against the pleas of your humble correspondent, among others – and supported Islamists (and the jihadists they inevitably align with) to oust the regime.

There cannot be an “oppose the brutal dictator” principle. American foreign policy has to be steered by American interests, and sometimes — not always, but often — the alternative to a brutal dictator will be worse for the United States. In the real world, we have to promote our principles while remaining mindful that, more often than not, we have to steer a course between bad and worse.    

In mid 2011, when the estimable Max Boot urged Republicans to support Qaddafi’s overthrow because he was a “homicidal dictator,” I objected and made the following counter-case against intervention in Libya, which I continue to stand by:

It gets tedious to continue pointing this out, but Qaddafi was every bit as much a “homicidal dictator,” to borrow Max Boot’s phrase, when a Republican administration decided to embrace him and regard him as a key ally against terrorism.

Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Condoleezza Rice supported propping Qaddafi up with U.S. aid, including aid to his military. If Max was offended by that arrangement, if he inveighed against these U.S. government officials for supporting an incorrigibly anti-American homicidal dictator, I guess I missed it. Nevertheless, one of the reasons the Bush and Obama administrations regarded Qaddafi as a key ally was the fact that he was providing us with intelligence against Islamist operatives in his country — particularly, in eastern Libya — which, by percentage of population, was sending more jihadists to kill American troops in Iraq than any other country.

Many of these anti-American Islamists are part of the “rebels” — the polite name for the Libyan mujahideen who are Qaddafi’s opposition. Eastern Libya is their stronghold. They are supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose chief jurisprudent, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, has issued a fatwa calling for Muslims to kill Qaddafi, with the goal of toppling him and setting up a sharia state that would be just as anti-American as Qaradawi is. Furthermore, John Rosenthal has reported here on NRO in recent days that even Libya’s National Transitional Council admits that the rebels include Islamic extremists (though its spokesman lowballs them as “no more than 15 percent” of the rebels — as if that would make us feel better if it were true). As Mr. Rosenthal has also recounted, French analysts who have studied the “rebels” conclude that only a small minority of them are “true democrats” — in fact, the “rebels” are thoroughly infiltrated by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Like most conservatives opposed to our Libya intervention, I’ve been asked a lot lately how it feels to be aligned with a hard leftist like Dennis Kucinich. It feels better, I think, than if I found myself on the same side as al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Contrary to the assertions of Max and other Arab Spring enthusiasts, those of us who oppose U.S. intervention in Libya are not isolationists and we despise Qaddafi as much, if not more, than Max does. In point of fact, a few of us actually complained loudly when the Bush administration airbrushed Qaddafi into a U.S. ally and capitulated in a U.S.–Libya settlement premised on a moral equivalence between Qaddafi’s anti-U.S. terrorism and President Reagan’s retaliatory attack on Tripoli. We thought it was disgusting to find the U.S. secretary of state schmoozing a terrorist thug with American blood on his hands.

But we also recognize that al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and its Islamist allies are incorrigibly anti-American and have killed many more Americans than the detestable Qaddafi has. We don’t see any good reason to support Qaddafi’s opposition unless and until the pro-interventionists satisfy our grave concerns that he will be replaced with something even worse. Don’t lecture us about supporting Qaddafi. We’re not supporting Qaddafi — in contrast to the U.S. officials and administrations that supported Qaddafi from 2003 into 2011 despite knowing full well that he was, every second of that time, a dyed-in-the-wool terrorist murderer of Americans.

For now, we must assume the concerns we have expressed about the “rebels” cannot be answered. With no vital U.S. interests at stake, and with our country engaged in multiple military excursions while teetering on the financial brink, pro-interventionists have made a mockery of domestic and international law. President Obama has a constitutional obligation to seek congressional support for an unprovoked military invasion under circumstances where the United States was under no threat of attack and where there were no vital U.S. interests at stake. Even if one were to disagree on this constitutional bottom line, there was absolutely no good reason from a policy perspective not to seek congressional authorization and lay out the case for intervention in a good faith fashion.

The Obama administration has steadfastly refused to do this, and the pro-interventionists have cheered the president on — despite the facts that (a) there is no international authorization for a war against Qaddafi, (b) the president has shamefully claimed that we are only in Libya to protect civilians even as U.S.-backed NATO forces wage war on his military and seek to kill him; (c) while ignoring Congress, the Obama administration consulted closely with the United Nations and the Arab League; and (d) the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that is guiding the Obama administration in Libya (see Stanley Kurtz’s essential essay, here) is a transnational progressive nostrum that ought to be anathema to conservatives and those who see American power as reserved for American interests.

This would be breathtaking under any circumstances, but here we are talking about an invasion of a country with which the U.S. was at peace — a country that the U.S. claimed to regard as an ally against terrorists, and a country whose military regime U.S. taxpayers were supporting at the insistence of those who now tell us Qaddafi must be deposed. The administration has stubbornly refused to give the American people the benefit of congressional hearings so that our representatives could probe who the rebels are and why our military should get involved in Libya’s internal strife. Rather than calling on the administration to make its case, the interventionists have been happy to go along. 

There is not a place on this planet where I would oppose the use of American power to defend American lives. I’m confident that most conservatives and most Republicans feel the same way. We believe in maintaining American military dominance and using it in furtherance of vital American interests. We are not the Ron Paul legions. What we don’t support is pretending that our enemies are our friends. We don’t support using our military to conduct experiments in Islamic nation-building that are unlikely to succeed and will not, in any event, make us safer from jihadists — who are expert at using the freedoms available in truly democratic societies in order to conduct their war against America and the West.

It is beyond absurd to suggest that this view of American power in the world is “isolationist.” All we’re saying is that American officials have done enough foolish things in the name of intervention — like making nice in Qaddafi’s tent. We need to know who the players are and how we’re likely to be affected before we plunge into these escapades.

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