Our disturbing relationship with Gaddafi

By Mark Ensalaco
August 23, 2011

By Mark Ensalaco
The opinions expressed are his own.

Thomas Jefferson once said “rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”

The Arab Spring is reminding the world that struggles for dignity, freedom, justice and human rights spring from our deepest aspirations as human beings. At the same time the dictatorial violence in Syria and Libya remind us of the evil that springs from the insatiable will to absolute power.

The repression in Syria has claimed more than 2,200 lives according to the United Nations. Thankfully, the bloodshed is coming to an end in Libya, but it must be remembered that in Libya, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, it took a bloody civil war and NATO intervention to destroy the decades-long tyranny of Muammar Gaddafi.

Events in Libya compel us to reflect on fundamental moral questions that are larger than geopolitics and the price of petroleum. But it is impossible to reflect on those moral questions without scrutinizing the compromising attitudes that stem from our acute concerns about national security and access to cheap oil.

In September 2004 the United States lifted economic sanctions leveled against the Gaddafi regime in response to its most egregious act of terror — the destruction of Pan 103 in December 1988. The Bush administration restored full diplomatic relations two years later. It is hard, looking at the bloodshed in Libya today, to reconcile the Bush administration’s rapprochement with Gaddafi with American values.

Pan Am 103 was not Gaddafi’s only act of terror: his intelligence service was behind the destruction of a TWA flight in 1974 and sponsored the Abu Nidal organizations acts of terrorism well into the 1980s — acts that included the slaughter of American children in airports in Vienna and Rome. President Reagan quite rightly called Gaddafi the “mad dog of the Middle East”.

The Bush administration cited Gaddafi’s shrewd decision to dismantle a crude nuclear weapons program and its payment of reparations to the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 to justify the opening of an American embassy in Tripoli. Neither of these empty gestures translated into a fundamental change in the nature of the Gaddafi tyranny. Gaddafi cunningly suspended the foreign terror operations but continued to terrorize the Libyan people with the confidence of a tyrant with a new lease on life. President Bush never openly condemned the repression in Libya, despite his lofty rhetoric about America’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East at the onset of the war in Iraq. The appeasement with Libya was always about petroleum, never about principle.

September 11 deepened the Bush administration’s disturbing relationship with Gaddafi. The administration secretly reached out to Libyan intelligence to cooperate in the global war on terrorism. In their memoirs, former CIA officials describe surreal meetings with Libyan intelligence chieftains whom they suspected of involvement in the destruction of Pan Am 103.

Libyan officials were only too pleased to identify, detain and torture Libyans who gravitated to Al Qaeda at the behest of the CIA. Perhaps the collaboration with Libyan intelligence seemed like a morally acceptable compromise after the slaughter of Americans on 9/11, but the secret partnership with Gaddafi served emboldened him in his secret campaign to ratchet up the repression in Libya.

If rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God, then surely compromise with tyrants smacks of a pact with the devil.

The challenge of reconciling U.S. economic and security interests with American values has always vexed Americans in high office. But Libya under Gaddafi was a simple case of moral and political discernment. The United States failed that test badly. America gained nothing of lasting value from its relationship with Gaddafi. It only bought a tyrant more time, and cost more Libyan lives.

Photo: A Libyan rebel fighter walks past graffiti depicting Muammar Gaddafi at a checkpoint near Yafran in western Libya August 5, 2011. REUTERS/Bob Strong

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