Guest Column: Qaddafi- Right casualty, wrong war

Joshua Lipson

The man of a thousand orthographies is dead. Not surprisingly, the political-cultural commentariat has been abuzz with lurid stories of Qaddafi’s last minutes in Sirte – raising, albeit more graphically, the same litany of hackneyed questions that came with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

We should applaud Qaddafi’s death at the hands of NTC fighters, just as we should have applauded Saddam Hussein’s execution in 2006. When a leader decides to imprison, torture and massacre his country’s population into submission, he tacitly consents in the event of upheaval to become the cathartic target of their pent-up frustration.

That said, the end of Qaddafi does not justify the Obama administration’s foolhardy intervention in Libya any more than the end of Hussein justified the Bush administration’s downright disastrous invasion of Iraq. Muammar Qaddafi was a mass-murderer – but retributive justice is not a valid premise for foreign policy. If it were, we’d be wrong not to use all the might we have to topple the unforgivable likes of Kim Jong-Il, Omar al-Bashir and Bashar al-Assad.

Compared to any of the aforementioned despots, Qaddafi posed hardly any threat to American or international security. Granted, this was hardly the case in the 1980s, when Qaddafi pursued a muscular pro-terror policy and targeted international civilians shamelessly. But in the wake of Sept. 11 and under the increasing influence of his Western-educated son, Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi abandoned his pursuit of nuclear weapons, pursued a broad-based rapprochement with the West and wrote moderate (if ill-conceived) editorials in the New York Times about a one-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

Like many of our friends over the years, he remained quite authoritarian. However, it says a lot that Qaddafi’s worst provocation of the last decade amounted to a call for the partition of Switzerland – a zany, but totally irrelevant challenge to the international order.

I don’t plan to elaborate much on why the Libya intervention was a bad idea – articulate arguments from strategic irrelevance, cost and concern for the NTC’s affinities have been made several times over. I would particularly suggest the argument that, in light of the U.S.’ post-disarmament ouster of Qaddafi, no rogue leader will dare to give up his nuclear arms ever again.

In short, the Obama administration’s invocation of ‘responsibility to protect’ in Libya is both intellectually flimsy and frighteningly pliable. However, credit is due to Obama for conducting the cleanest, safest and most respectful intervention of choice in recent memory. The president has steered effortlessly clear of another Iraq – zero American lives lost, no long slog of an occupation.

But let’s not be distracted by the just killing of Qaddafi or the surgical precision of NATO’s intervention – regime change in Libya is destabilizing. Despite some signs of promise from the NTC, it is hard to take seriously the promises for liberal democracy of a group that has accused Qaddafi of being a Jew, in a country without a civil society or readily defensible borders.

Let’s hope for the best. After all, we asked for it.

Guest column by Joshua Lipson. Originally published in the Harvard Political Review (via UWIRE).