Gaddafi’s Death Doesn’t Vindicate Intervention

Al Jazeera covers Gaddafi's death
Al Jazeera covers Gaddafi's death

[Warning: links about Libya events below may contain graphic content]

Spencer Ackerman quasi-jokingly predicts the “The Post-Gadhafi Journalism You Will Read In The Next 72 Hours” following the summary execution of captured Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. First on the list, Ackerman suggests Tom Friedman will write a story called “Why Gadhafi’s Death Vindicates ‘Leading From Behind’.” It’s meant to be a joke since Friedman is a rather predictable hack, but he may very well be drafting that story as we speak.

Beating him to it, though, is fellow NYT writer Nick Kristof, who upon learning of the news tweeted: “If Qaddafi is dead, this is (tentative) vindication of a brave Obama decision to back rebels trying to overthrow him.” Notice Kristof didn’t make the claim when Gaddafi fled Tripoli and was effectively out of power, but he said it when Gaddafi was confirmed dead.

But why? Why does killing Gaddafi justify the United States intervening in yet another MENA country? I can only think of reasons to the contrary.

For one thing, Gaddafi’s death has already begun to push the fact that President Obama evaded the War Powers Resolution to invade Libya further out of our collective consciousness, making it harder for us to hold him accountable for this illegal action and much easier for future presidents to do the same, or worse.

Further on that point, the Obama administration initially “strongly denied” the idea that regime change in Libya was our mission or goal, insisting instead that we were there under the vague premise of “installing a democratic system.” Early reports indicate that a NTC Libyan rebel, not a NATO member, killed the dictator, but Obama has said that now that Gaddafi is dead, NATO’s bombing campaign “may end very soon.” (If it doesn’t, that’ll be even more telling about our goals there.)

But more importantly, deposing Gaddafi at the end of our mission in no way excuses what happened along the way. The ends do not justify the means, especially when the means are this gruesome:

  • NATO airstrikes have repeatedly killed innocent civilians. One such airstrike was even said to have hit a Libyan hospital, killing seven people including three doctors.
  • The Libyan rebels, whom the U.S.-led NATO team supports, have been accused of murdering civilians, beating and looting others, and more war crimes.
  • The same rebels are also accused of ethnic cleansing and black genocide, and the head of the African Union said the rebels were “indiscriminately killing black people” in Libya, allegedly confusing them with Col. Gaddafi’s hired mercenaries.
  • We may never know the full civilian toll of the Libyan War.

So does toppling and killing Gaddafi justify all of that? No one credibly claims that Gaddafi deserves to remain in power, or that he wasn’t a terrible autocrat who murdered his own people. But that doesn’t mean the United States (and NATO, which wouldn’t exist without the U.S.) needed to impose its democratic vision as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan to similarly ghastly results.

Finally, an obvious point worth noting: we have no idea what will happen to Libya. We can all agree that Gaddafi was a horrendous despot who needed to leave, but that doesn’t mean we know what will come of the government that replaces his regime. I’m not arguing that things were “better off” under Gaddafi, but the fact remains that we simply don’t know. It’s premature to claim any event “vindicates” this intervention, its grave abuses notwithstanding, because (1) it hasn’t even ended yet, and (2) we still need to see what happens there further down the line.

But one wonders if NATO really cares what happens to the Libyan people down the line. Our purported mission in Libya was to prevent a massacre in Benghazi – we did that months ago, but continued bombing consistently despite scores of civilian deaths. Then the goal was to “install” – or impose – democracy there. Who are we to install democracy abroad? Why couldn’t we let Libyans revolt on their own, as we did in Tunisia and Egypt (not to mention the massacres we’re allowing in Bahrain and Syria)? Why are we the world police? It’s getting harder and harder to keep track of how many Middle East wars the United States is waging. Does one fallen dictator make up for the blood on our hands or the blood on our reputation?


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