Written by WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
Saturday, 22 October 2011 06:44
Africa’s King of Kings, the Sword of Islam, the Guide of the People and the Great Loon of Libya is gone. The crowds kicked his lifeless body through the streets of his hometown. Those who trusted in him and who aided and abetted his crimes, are scattered to the four winds — the lucky ones. The others are dead or in jail. In the anarchy of the new Libya, the families of his allies are huddled in their homes, fearful that each day will bring revenge from those the Great Loon and his henchmen tortured, murdered and dispossessed.
History will not shed any tears over the Loon, and neither will I. He was an example of the worst type of ruler history sometimes throws up: an empowered, murderous, psychopathic clown. He was a sick joke; it is a measure of the moral and political degradation of “third worldism” that his fellow thugs like Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez and dictators and kleptocrats without number considered him a member of the club, ignored his flagrant sins, and prostituted the name of justice by hailing him as a progressive, revolutionary leader who was making our world a better place.
There is a lot of scum in this world that calls itself cream; we live in an era when the most vicious evil, hatred and oppression portrays itself as an angel of light — and finds plenty of deluded ideologues, hate-crazed ‘resistance’ movements, and plain old fashioned thugs willing to further the deception.
The Great Loon wrecked his country in the service of his twisted ambitions and an incoherent philosophy; he believed the flatterers and toadies who told him that he was wise. His relations and his allies pillaged the country. He persecuted the innocent, oppressed the poor, slandered the just.
Sadly, he deserved the death he received — just as Saddam Hussein deserved the humiliation and mockery of his last moments on earth. Forty years of comfortable prison in the Hague would not have been just recompense for his crimes; for a man whose vanity and ambition turned a country into a concentration camp, death is a just sentence, however served.
I am glad he is gone, and I am glad that the United States shares in the honor of his fall. We should not forget to remember and thank the brave Americans who did their part to bring him down — and worked so hard to make the military strikes as effective as possible while bringing as little collateral damage to civilians as they could. I can think of a list of other vain, vicious and delusional tyrants who deserve the same fate — though that does not mean that I want American forces to move to the next target on my list. An over-zealous quest for universal justice is likely to end in tears — and not the happy kind.
Had the Loon been willing to leave power peacefully six months ago, I would have favored making an agreement to give him immunity and a dignified though not lavish exile in some quiet part of the world. When trying to get rid of a truly evil ruler, getting him out quickly is often more important than punishing him for his crimes. I would rather prevent someone from committing 1,000 new murders than punish him for 1,000 he has already committed. The first duty of justice must usually be to the living, and the restoration of freedom and security to the citizens of a country before more can be tortured and killed is the first thing to get done. There can come a time when the fire must burn itself out and the head of the dictator be kicked through the streets, but on the whole giving thugs a last chance to step aside is likely to do more good than harm.
There is one conclusion we ought to draw from the inglorious end of the Great Loon: the Bush agenda in the Middle East is alive and well. The United States is, as Bush and Cheney so forcefully announced, a revolutionary power in the Middle East no longer seeking to prop up the status quo at any cost. (The Saudi exemption still holds.) Regime change remains on the table; the military forces of the United States stand ready to take out thugs whose viciousness has become insupportable, or who align themselves against the vital interests of this country. We would prefer not to do this at all; if something must be done we would rather do it under the aegis of the UN, but we will do it with less prestigious blessings if we must. Where possible, we do it with allies, and we would rather support and promote from behind the scenes than to bear all the burdens and costs on our own, but when American presidents say that “all options are on the table”, they mean exactly what they say.
This does not mean that Presidents Bush and Obama are less moderate and less law abiding than their predecessors. Their policies changed in part because the region had changed: the dictators who once brought stability at the price of repression could no longer deliver. Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen: the old rulers could still kill but they could no longer rule.
Additionally, the balance of military power has been steadily shifting in favor of the United States. This runs counter to all the loose talk about inevitable, inexorable US decline: a close look at the facts on the ground suggests that the US has considerably more power to impose its agenda on most “third world” countries than it did twenty years ago. This is partly because such countries can no longer realistically claim the protection of a rival superpower, but it is also because the American military is a much more formidable machine than it used to be. Our weapons are much smarter and much more devastatingly effective, and our professional military has blossomed into the most effective force in the history of the human race. We can still be made to take casualties in asymmetrical combat situations, and no amount of military power can overcome the absence of strategy, but between the battlefield advantages our high tech weapons and new methods of training and combat planning have given us, the revolution in force projection, and the range of cultural, diplomatic, humanitarian and developmental capacities our military has acquired in the last twenty years, America’s unprecedented military power has changed the way the world works.
This power is not a magic omnipotence pill; there are many things we cannot do. But the days when a third world tyrant could rely on conventional weapons to deter American intervention are gone. The US military swatted Saddam’s army, rated as one of the world’s better forces, like so many flies in the first Gulf War, and by the time of the second our conventional superiority was even greater. The Libyan intervention was done with the back of our hand, so to speak; President Obama and his top commanders did not interrupt their efforts in the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia to provide the backup for NATO’s attacks.
This power does not work as well in asymmetrical settings, but in general we are back to the kind of military superiority that European forces enjoyed over non-European rulers in Victorian times. Reinforcing that power is the fact that no other great power has the force projection capacities, or even the military resources overall, to come to the aid of a Libya or a Saddam. Drone strike diplomacy is not all that different from gunboat diplomacy, and until and unless the military balance changes, the US is going to have more options for dealing with “bad guys” than we have had for many years.
We should use that power with care and restraint, and we have seen plenty of recent situations where overwhelming military power created new and vexing problems on the ground. Just because we have an excellent hammer does not mean that every problem on earth is a nail.
Nevertheless, the disempowering of tyrants is a fact of our time, and I for one am glad.
First Pubished at The American Interest.