On Qaddafi

Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I’m late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here’s my initial take, for what it may be worth. I don’t think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I'm late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here's my initial take, for what it may be worth.

I don't think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya's leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya's wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.

Moreover, Qaddafi's death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).

Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I’m late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here’s my initial take, for what it may be worth.

I don’t think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya’s leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya’s wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.

Moreover, Qaddafi’s death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).

The decision to intervene may have reinforced perceptions that the United States was in favor of democratic change in the Middle East, and kept some of the momentum of the "Arab Spring" alive. (According to Michael Hastings, that concern was a big part of Obama’s rationale for going to war).  It is also possible that the Colonel’s fate will have a salutary effect on some other dictators (are you listening, Bashar?), and lead some of them to look for an early and safe exit instead of trying to hang on until the last bullet. Qaddafi’s demise also eliminates any possibility of a restoration and spares the country the distraction of a prolonged trial and possible execution, thereby making it easier for Libyans to focus on the difficult task of constructing a workable political order.

So it would be foolish not to see a certain amount of good news in this outcome. But any sense of achievement should be tempered by several other considerations.  

First, I still worry about the other lessons that other leaders may draw from Qaddafi’s fate. He agreed to give up all his WMD programs in 2003, in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to overthrow him. And he got a lot of favorable attention from the United States after that–including a friendly visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — in part because he was openly hostile to Al Qaeda. Yet eight years later, that pledge was tossed aside and we intervened to help topple him from power. We should therefore expect the leaders of Iran and North Korea (and maybe some other countries) to draw the obvious conclusion: weapons of mass destruction are an effective means of deterring great powers from trying to overthrow you, and don’t ever, ever believe Washington when it promises to leave you alone if you disarm.

Second, helping overthrow Qaddafi may have signaled U.S. support for the "Arab spring," but our response to upheavals in Bahrain and elsewhere shows that our policy is far from consistent. On the plus side, we did not allow at least one dictator to crush the opposition, and we can therefore claim to have taken action consistent with our values. But we are also guilty of obvious hypocrisy-both because we had previously embraced the supposedly reformed Qaddafi and because we have turned a blind eye when authoritarians on which we are more dependent cracked down on their populations. We can be sure that critics will remind us about our double-standards — repeatedly.  And any kudos we may have won in the Arab world are more than counteracted by our shameful policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Third, the United States and NATO clearly exceeded the mandate provided by the U.N. Security Council, and the backlash from that diplomatic decision is already being felt. Russia and China are both irritated (if not alarmed) by our willingness to run roughshod over Resolution 1973, and that is a big reason they have blocked efforts to condemn the Assad regime in Syria. We may have got our man, but at what long-term cost?  Ironically, the Libyan intervention may be both an illustration of the doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) and a major blow against the doctrine itself.

Fourth, Libya’s political future remains highly uncertain. There are some encouraging signs, and as noted, Qaddafi’s demise may simplify the task of rebuilding a more legitimate and effective state somewhat. But as I’ve noted before, it will take awhile before a reliable net assessment is possible, and a lot depends on how the Libyan people themselves respond. As I hope we’ve learned from our adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, outside powers can help remove people from power, but the fate of any country is mostly in the hands of its own citizens, and not foreign powers.

Lastly, although the decision to intervene was suffused with liberal rhetoric and Qaddafi’s death has been accompanied by a sober accounting of his many sins, the whole business confirms Thucydides’ famous maxim (much loved by realists) that the "strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must." Despite his silly pretensions, Muammar al-Qaddafi was in the end the not-very-effective ruler of a not-very-powerful state. Although he managed to hold power for four decades, he accomplished hardly any memorable goals, and managed to alienate most of the leaders with whom he dealt. And he fell from power because he failed to realize that he wasn’t omnipotent or especially popular, and that his military forces were too fragile to go up against modern military forces (even if the latter were barely breathing hard).  In the end, the strong did what they could, and the weak suffered the consequences. Let us hope that his successors govern more wisely, and more realistically too.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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