Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is dead 42 years after he took power. Having already lost Libya he was holed up in Sirte, his stronghold, fighting to the last minute. Gaddafi was the Osama Bin Laden of the 1980s for Americans. He was an organizer of state sponsored terrorism, a supporter of radical anti-American movements around the globe and had ambitions to control all of northern Africa.
The only bad news in this is that he lasted so long. He was one of the most heinous criminals on the world stage and while there is justifiable celebration over his demise, his brutal criminal regime terrorized the Libyan people for over four decades. In 1986 the US attempted to kill Gaddafi in bombing raids, seeing him as the most dangerous dictator on the planet. This was a response to Libyan backed terrorism in Germany in which the LaBelle nightclub in West Berlin was bombed, killing three and injuring 229. That was a nightclub known to be frequented by US military personnel so the US felt justified in trying to take out Gaddafi. It failed because he was warned (either by the Italian or Maltese Prime Minister) ahead of time.
Two years later, on December 21, 1988 Gaddafi got his revenge as Libyan agents caused a bomb to go off on Pan Am Flight 103, which went down over Lockerbie, Scotland. 259 passengers and crew members died as well as 11 people on the ground who got hit by falling debris. Calls for Gaddafi’s ouster intensified, but he hung on.
But his geopolitical ambitions were already on the wane. Libya had lost a war to Chad in 1987 and within a year of downing Pan Am 103 the Soviet bloc disintegrated. The world was changing, and Gaddafi’s influence declined. After having tried to become a nuclear power in order to cement his leadership position in northern Africa, his WMD programs became a drain on the economy and increasingly meaningless. As his political ambitions waned his family became more liked an organized criminal syndicate running a state. They siphoned wealth from Libya’s oil revenues, controlled economic relations internally, and ruled with an iron fist.
In 1999 they gave up their WMD program as part of a strategy to gain favor with the West. It was a cynical shifting of position in recognition to the fact that Gaddafi and his family now had more to gain as a friend of the West rather than a foe. They then settled the Lockerbie bombing case and promising to work with the West against its newest foe, al qaeda. Unfortunately leaders in Europe and the US were all too willing to “forgive and forget” Gaddafi’s past. By 2001 he had been weakened but now used better connections with the West to enhance his grip on power and buy support.
Yet he remained what he always had been: a ruthless tyrant.
Then on February 15, 2011 the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel sparked a riot in Benghazi. The unthinkable happened – the Libyan people rose up and defied Gaddafi, starting a revolt. They had early gains; emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt they hoped to bring down the repressive regime. Gaddafi, seeing how Mubarak folded and was humiliated, decided to do everything in his power to defeat the rebellion. He used ethnic rivalries, his control of resources, and the Libyan military to strike back. Soon the rebels were losing ground. Gaddafi, believing that the West would simply stand back, promised “no mercy” as he moved his military in position to crush the rebellion completely. Most observers were expecting harsh retribution against those who had dared challenge his authority. Gaddafi’s sons, once seen as reflecting hope that perhaps the next generation would bring more enlightened rule, echoed the threats.
On March 17th after Gaddafi’s forces took back most of Libya and were advancing no Benghazi the UN Security Council ordered a no fly zone over parts of Libya and authorized air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces. On March 19th those airstrikes began and the government offensive was halted. Slowly the rebels started to regain ground. At first there was intense criticism of the UN action, enforced mostly by NATO airstrikes. President Obama was criticized by some for acting too slow, but by many for doing anything at all. As the fighting dragged into summer people accused the President of entering a conflict that could not be won.
NATO leaders knew that it was a matter of time. With NATO air support the rebels would defeat the government, and it would be months rather than years. They were right. In August rebel forces entered Tripoli, and with Gaddafi’s death the rebellion is complete.
Was this a success for President Obama? Undoubtedly yes. A dictator just as heinous and brutal as Saddam was overthrown, yet by his own people thanks to assistance from the West. No American lives were lost, and the cost was far less than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This proved that the West will not always side with oppressive regimes if their people rise against them, and that the West is powerful enough and patient enough to offer effective assistance to those fighting oppression. Moreover without western help it was clear that Gaddafi was going to crush the rebels with brutal force.
This also showed that the US was still relevant in the region; many thought that after the Iraq war’s high cost and ambiguous conclusion (still being played out), the US would be sidelined for quite awhile. No way would the public support another foreign intervention. Perhaps more important is the message this sends to other dictators. The times are changing. Being pro-western in your policy does not buy you a free pass to oppress your people without mercy.
President Obama’s foreign policy is a mix of realism and idealism. He doesn’t sacrifice democratic principles for raw self interest, but he’s been willing to act even if it goes against international law. Such “principled realism” has marked American foreign policy at its most effective, and for all Obama’s economic woes at home, his foreign policy has been strong. Gaddafi and Osama are dead. Clinton and Karzai are in Afghanistan planning how to end NATO involvement there, while there is serious talk of the US being out of Iraq completely by next year (except for military guards at the US embassy). US status abroad is much higher than it was in 2008, and relations with important powers such as China and Russia have been smoother than expected.
Recent US allegations of Iranian plots to assassinate the Saudi ambassador have led to Iranian bombast against the US and Saudi Arabia. But the Iranians know that Obama is not one to be pushed around, and instead of provoking an Iranian challenge to the US, there has been an internal challenge to Iran’s hardline leadership. It’s not inconceivable that Iran’s hardliners will be pushed aside by a more moderate faction. The patient but real successes of Obama’s foreign policy have been a relatively untold story thanks to economic woes, but it appears that one area where Obama will not be vulnerable next year is on foreign policy.