I’ve been watching US/NATO involvement in Libya for the few months and have a few thoughts. Just like Saddam Hussein, Mummar Gaddafi was a dictator who abused his own people to varying degrees. There are horror stories coming out about some of the things his regime did to citizens and its clear that we’ve lost another brutal dictator.
I’ve been interested in the message that foreign involvement sends to dictators around the world. In 1979, the US placed Libya on the new “state sponsors of terrorism” list as the State Department believed that Libya and Gaddafi were actively supporting terrorist networks around the world. Over the next 24 years, US/Libya relations worsened, reaching a nadir in the aftermath of the Lockerbie Bombings and subsequent retaliation in the form of increased sanctions. Full chronology here.
In the mid 90s, Libya restarted its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and further moved into isolation. Things started to thaw in the 2000s, and by 2003, the US, Britian and Libya reached an agreement where Gaddafi would give up his weapons of mass destruction, let foreign inspectors come in and dismantle the plants and stop any further development. Libya also exposed AQ Khan’s nuclear secrets bazaar, making the world a much safer place. In exchange, the sanctions against Libya were annulled and Libya was removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
Fast forward eight years later. Libyans rise up against the Gaddafi regime, demanding freedom and self rule. Gaddafi’s troops respond and start to put the uprising down, but the US and NATO intervene and begin to bomb the Libyan army and later “command and control” infrastructure all over the country. They demand that Gaddafi step down and attempt to kill him and his family with bombs.
What lesson does NATO’s intervention teach rouge regimes, dictators and others with aspirations counter to western interests? First, NATO and the US negotiate to get what they want: Libya gave up their WMD asiprations, let foreigners in to actually do the disarmament and later renounced terrorism.
Then a few years later, NATO tries to kill you and your family when there is an internal armed uprising. This is not to say Quadaffi is a good guy, but after seeing what happened to Hussein and now Gaddafi, Bashar Al Assad, Kim Jong Il, Mahmood Ahamdinejad, Pakistan’s rulers and others must think that the only thing protecting them from foreign bombing or invasion is weapons of mass destruction or a huge military with the ability to strike back at western targets. It seems like a really bad lesson to teach these foreign dictators who have interests counter to the US and NATO’s.
President Obama said the US got involved in Libya to prevent a massive slaughter of civilians, but in reality, our governemnt really supported an armed rebellion to overthrow a dictator. Its clear that this dictator did some horrible things, but he did sit down to the negotiating table and give up his WMDs and do exactly what we wanted. On the other end of the spectrum, we invaded Iraq after Hussein refused to allow inspectors.
If this is how we are repaying those who actually sit down and negotiate and give us exactly what we want, how can we really get mad at dictators and foreign heads of state who refuse to negotiate? In their eyes, the only way to avoid being attacked is to either have no significant natural resources (Darfur), build up significant armed forces (Iran and Syria) or build weapons of mass destruction (Iran, North Korea, Pakistan). If you are weak like Hussein or give up your weapons like Gaddafi, you’ll be attacked at the first sign of weakness.
The US/NATO has two conflicting objectives. Our government wants to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction and also support uprisings against dictators (Egypt, Libya etc). I think that we need to look very carefully at the message we are sending to the dictators of the world with our Libya intervention. In the short term, we’ve helped remove a brutal dictator, but in the long term, have we lost even more of our credibility? If I’m a dictator, I’m going to build up my army and my WMD program so that the US cannot bomb me without fear of retaliation. I’m not going to risk being weak like Hussein or make a deal like Gaddafi. Not a good message to be sending.