11:15 AM EDT, October 20, 2011
The death of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi at the hands of the rebels who deposed him was the best possible outcome of the months-long civil war in that North African country. Had he remained at large, he could have been a symbol of resistance to the nation’s new leaders, delaying efforts to bring peace and a transition to democracy. Had he been captured alive, the nation’s fledgling leaders would have been forced to choose between trying him themselves or acquiescing to a war crimes trial in international court, either of which would have given a madman the attention he craved, to the detriment of efforts at reconciliation between rival factions in Libya. Now the nation has a fresh beginning to move forward in its own way.
Mr. Gadhafi’s nearly 42 years in power atop a self-styled “people’s government” that answered only to him and whose every action was an expression of his personal whims made him one of the Arab world’s most mercurial heads of state as well as its longest-ruling despot. He used his country’s oil wealth to build schools, roads and hospitals on an unprecedented scale, but also to buy the loyalty of tribal supporters, meddle shamelessly in the affairs of neighboring countries, sponsor bloody acts of terrorism around the world and brutally repress any hint of dissent at home.
His unpredictable policy shifts led him to be alternately despised and courted by Western nations. They blamed Libyan intelligence agents for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and a French airliner over the West African nation of Niger in 1989, yet later sought Mr. Gadhafi’s help in the war on terror and poured billions into rebuilding Libya’s oil industry after he agreed to dismantle his nuclear weapons program in 2006.
The reports of Mr. Gadhafi’s death also serve as a final validation of President Barack Obama’s strategy in handling the conflict there. Mr. Obama has been criticized from both left and right for committing the United States to a limited military role in the Libyan conflict. In a much-maligned phrase, he chose to "lead from behind" in the conflict, providing American material and support to a NATO air campaign — but no troops on the ground.
That may have made for a conflict that dragged on far longer than it would have if we had sent in the Marines. But it also resulted in a revolution that the Libyan people can rightly claim to have conducted by themselves and for themselves. Their top priorities now must be to reunify their war-devastated country; disarm the dozens of heavily armed militia groups that now act independently of the government’s authority or integrate them under a central command; and oversee the development of an orderly process for the formation of political parties, a constitution and the rule of law that will lead to democratic elections.
With the final fall of the Gadhafi regime, we have achieved our goals without committing ourselves to a years-long occupation, without American casualties, and without alienating the very people we were supposed to be helping. It may not be the model for every international crisis — and indeed, Mr. Obama has pursued many different strategies for dealing with armed conflicts in other parts of the world — but it is surely a validation of the president’s decision to reject the ideological foreign policy of the Bush administration and replace it with a supple new pragmatism. The president’s opponents may hate the idea that America wouldn’t immediately take charge in every situation, but the results in this case speak for themselves.
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