Libya’s Mad Dog Dictator Bears His Fangs: Now is the Time for the United States to Get Involved

Say what you will about Libya’s Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi (and don’t be surprised if you can’t find anything nice to say), but he doesn’t resort to petty euphemism or dissemble about his intentions.  No, he speaks with astonishing candor about the brutality to come.  In Tunisia, Zine el-Abindine Ben Ali tried to save himself by declaring that he would institute economic reforms, investigate police brutality against demonstrators, and step down at the end of his current term.  In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak made an ill-received attempt to defend his rule by embracing the protesters as warmly in rhetoric as he had struck them callously in action, assuring his people that he had appointed a vice president and, yes, that he would step down at the end of his term.  In Libya yesterday, Ghaddafi delivered a 73-minute speech in which he declared that those rebelling against his regime were under the influence of foreigners (and drugs), and that he would “cleanse Libya house by house” if the protests don’t end now.

One might be inclined to sermonize that a dictator is a dictator, that 1 strongman who would sacrifice an open-ended number of lives to maintain absolute power over his country is as much of a monster as any.  But one would be wrong.  There are dictators, and there are mad dog dictators.  President Reagan once called Ghaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East,” and if his extensive past support of terrorism weren’t enough of an indication, his utter callousness towards the fate of his own people at the apparent end of his reign dispels all of his past moral pretenses.

Don’t let the fact that he hasn’t had occasion to murder his countrymen on the scale of Saddam Hussein’s 300,000-400,000 fool you; Colonel Ghaddafi has more in common with the late despot of Iraq, that man who modeled himself on Josef Stalin, than with the corrupt party-monopolists Ben Ali or Mubarak.  Whether he just feels comfortable in the well-worn political-ideational space he has eked out for himself or he is simply insane, the Liberal Ironist believes Muammar Ghaddafi has revealed his character through his actions in his desperate hours–and he is an impossible monster.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi some time after seizing power in 1969 as a 27-year-old army captain. Associated Press photo.

Captain Muammar Ghaddafi took power in Libya in a bloodless military coup against the king in 1969.  He was 27 years old.  Modeling himself on Egypt’s Arabist dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser and Latin American Communist revolutionary Che Guevara, Ghaddafi promoted himself to Colonel (still his rank in the Libyan Army), expelled all Italians living in Libya in 1970, published his “Green Book” between 1975 and 1979 in imitation of China’s Mao Zedong, sponsored terrorism in various countries (including not only the PLO and the IRA but direct involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103), tried to develop nuclear weapons (which he abandoned in 2004 between Western negotiations and mounting political pressure), and habitually traveled with an all-female bodyguard team and slept in a tent when abroad.  In a typical act of callous and counterproductive revolutionary commitment, Ghaddafi expelled 30,000 Palestinian refugees living in Libya to protest the PLO’s signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel.

Now, after just 1 week of anti-regime protests, most estimates put the number of dead civilians in Libya as more than those killed in all other current Arab democracy movements put together.  The Libyan Air Force has carried out air strikes on protesters in the capital, Tripoli.

Colonel Gaddafi during his 73-minute televised tirade yesterday, during which he claimed anti-regime protesters were being controlled by foreign agents with hallucinogens. He also warned that if the protests did not stop, he would "cleanse Libya house by house." Photo courtesy Agence France Presse/Libyan TV.

This brings us to the matter of Secretary of State Clinton’s statement on the violence and chaos in Libya.  Here I’ve included most of the first paragraph:

“…The United States continues to watch the situation in Libya with alarm. Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives have been lost and their loved ones, and we join the international community in strongly condemning the violence, as we’ve received reports of hundreds killed and many more injured. This bloodshed is completely unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the Government of Libya to respect the universal rights of their own people, including their right to free expression and assembly…”

At current I must express skepticism towards the Secretary of State’s use of the word “unacceptable.”  If our government doesn’t intend to do anything about the rolling massacres perpetrated by the remaining armed forces and mercenaries of the “Mad Dog of the Middle East,” then this bloodshed is acceptable by definition.  This is a good time, and these are good grounds, for the United States to take action.

No, I am not talking about boots on the ground in Libya.  The only question about such a prospect is whether our people or Libya’s would find such a prospect more-unappetizing.  But an Army deployment isn’t the only thing our government could do to save lives in Libya.  The US Air Force could enforce a no-fly zone in Libya–and it would be well worth the cost.

There are reasons why we haven’t yet taken this action unilaterally–or for that matter why the UN Security Council has issued a statement of condemnation regarding Libya but no resolution.  The New York Times article on the disapproving yet curiously non-committal stance of our government identified the concern staying its hand–and it is a good one: There are still US diplomatic staff and citizens inside Libya.  It isn’t currently in Ghaddafi’s interest to initiate violence against Americans in Libya, because that would likely catalyze US reprisals; by the same token, US aggressive action against Ghaddafi’s redoubt in the northwest of his country would probably incite revenge violence against Americans there.  Secretary of State Clinton insisted that “the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority.”

A government has to see to the safety of its own citizens first; that is the principled reason for its existence.  The Liberal Ironist recognizes and respects this primary obligation of the state.  But today a corrolary arises: The Ghaddafi regime has now explicitly betrayed this responsibility, declaring large numbers of Libyan civilians to be enemies for assembling and speaking out–and subsequently defending themselves.  The New York Times reports that many governments are currently scrambling to withdraw their nationals from the mounting violence in Libya.  Once the United States and other Western governments manage to withdraw their citizens from Libya, it’s time to get cracking to rectify this situation.  Muammar Ghaddafi has relinquished his rights to his country’s airspace.  It’s high time we stop Ghaddafi’s airstrikes on demonstrators.

The Italian government has just stated that it considers current rough estimates that 1,000 people have been killed in regime repression credible.  For ours and foreign governments to withdraw their citizens and diplomatic staff should be the end of the hold-up, because this situation is truly getting out of control.  We may already be 1,000 dead towards another Hama Massacre.  We know Ghaddafi is willing to do that; both his bark and his bite are dreadful.

UPDATE March 21, 2011: For anyone interested in some thoughts on what Egypt’s passage of its constitutional reform referendum means for that country’s revolution, click here.

UPDATE March 25, 2011: For a recent entry on President Obama’s push last week for a no-fly zone over Libya and a case that his failure to justify the operation to the public has drawn more criticism than a headline-grabbing defense would have, click here.

UPDATE April 5, 2011: For a discussion of Bashar al-Assad’s political situation in Syria and the Assad regime’s little-known history of brutality, click here.

UPDATE May 2, 2011: For thoughts on the significance of the killing of Osama bin Laden, click here.

UPDATE May 8, 2011: For thoughts on how Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu’s lack of regard for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process brought the Fatah and Hamas factions together, click here.

UPDATE May 21, 2011: For a discussion of the reason for our strategy of maintaining a good working relationship with Pakistan in spite of ISI support for terrorist groups, click here.

For a take on the novelty of President Obama’s support for a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 borders, click here.

UPDATE May 23, 2011: For a shorter discussion of the timeliness of President Obama’s AIPAC address on Sunday, May 22, click here.

UPDATE July 22, 2011: For a discussion of the apparent stalemate of the Libyan Civil War–and a call to maintain the no-fly zone and grant the Rebels state-building support–click here.

UPDATE September 6, 2011: For a discussion of the detention of hundreds of alleged black African mercenaries in Tripoli and elsewhere by victorious but still largely-disorganized Rebels, click here.

Colonel Gaddafi during his first address before the UN General Assembly after Libya emerged from decades of rogue state status, back in September 2009. During his unwelcome 100-minute rant, the sponsor of the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people accused the United Nations of being a terroristic body. Photograph: Ray Stubblebine/Reuters.



13 thoughts on “Libya’s Mad Dog Dictator Bears His Fangs: Now is the Time for the United States to Get Involved

  1. Kukri

    If we can get NATO in on this, and perhaps the Egyptian army, all the better. There are some 1.5 million Egyptian laborers in Libya.

  2. J-Doug

    don’t be surprised if you can’t find anything nice to say

    He has a very nice wardrobe.

    tried to develop nuclear weapons (which he abandoned in 2004 between Western negotiations and mounting political pressure)

    This as part of a long series of negotiations that led to the normalization of relations with Libya, the dropping of charges (civil and criminal) against the Pan Am bombers, and ostensibly access to Libya’s petroleum reserves.

    Secretary of State Clinton insisted that “the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority.”

    Not to mention an enormous sunk cost in developing relationships with Qadaffi’s regime over the last half-decade.

    I also think that cost concerns will come into play. Planes aren’t cheap, nor are no-fly zones, and the USAF currently has a lot on their plate already. Luckily, I think we can enforce a NATO-sanctioned no-fly zone with US leadership but a minimum of US forces committed, comprising of a coalition of ally states. We can get away with this because Libya’s AF isn’t the world’s most sophisticated, to say the least.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      I’m inclined to skepticism on one point–the idea that sunk costs in working-out better relations with Libya since 2004 is a significant cause of delay in taking meaningful action against Gaddafi. It’s possible I’m being naive, but in spite of the significant strategic and business interests in better relations with Libya, the events of the past week have served to remind us of something we never should have forgotten: Gaddafi is a loose canon on deck. Right now he is massacring his own people, and as of this writing his effective control has already shrunk to the cities of the northwest coast, excluding Misrata. I certainly don’t want to think that our government intends not to do anything simply because it had to negotiate and give economic aid to secure better relations with Libya; in addition to representing considerable callousness as an independent inhibition on taking action, recognizing such (low) sunk costs could easily undermine our ability to establish relations with a succeeding government once Gaddafi is dispatched. In strategic terms, I don’t think remaining disengaged is our “dominant strategy” because we risk incurring skepticism if not resentment in the event of regime change–and regime change in Libya now looks immanent.

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  4. Muammar Ghaddafie

    Libya should be left to handle there own affairs, this insurrection was whipped up by the oil speculators. This is all about money and oil and little to do with the people or Libya.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      I disagree…Muammar. “Libya” and “the Libyans” are not some monolithic entity handling one set of affairs. Like all countries they bring many contending people and interests together. In a politically healthy country, these contending interests are able to play out in public; it’s obvious Colonel Gaddafi, a very cruel man, hates this open contention. This is a war been Gaddafi and his supporters (whom I call the Greens) and supporters of the revolution (the Reds). Gaddafi has used his billions of dollars in capital reserves, his mercenaries and his air power to punish the cities and towns where the rebels have support. Whenever the dust settles, I expect we will find many thousands of civilian bystanders have been killed, through indiscriminate violence and possibly through the imposition of want on these isolated communities.

      If the purpose of foreign intervention were really to take Libya’s oil, the UN Security Council wouldn’t have waited so long; it’s with humanitarian intervention that we don’t go both feet in at the beginning.

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