Critics of America's intervention in Libya have wondered how much we really know about the antigovernment opposition. This is a legitimate line of inquiry. We should be thinking about the devil we may not know. But in Libya today there is also a devil we do know. His name is Muammar Qaddafi.
Born in the desert near Sirte in 1942, Qaddafi seized power in a military coup in September 1969. He has never relinquished it. During his reign, Libyans have lived under one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
How repressive? Freedom House gives Qaddafi's regime the worst possible ranking in political rights and civil liberties. Political parties are illegal. Organizing or joining a party is punishable by long prison terms and death. Corruption is pervasive. There is no independent press or freedom of assembly. Human Rights Watch reports that since he assumed power, Qaddafi has repeatedly used arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and political killings to maintain control over the population. Now he is hiring mercenaries to wage war on his own people, promising to “punish [those seeking liberation] without mercy.”
Not content to have turned his own country into a giant prison, over the years Qaddafi has also supported maniacs like Ugandan president Idi Amin, Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, and the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. He has embarked on military campaigns into Chad and Egypt and provided aid and comfort to a Who's Who of terrorist groups, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Italian Red Brigades, the Basque separatist group ETA, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia. He has encouraged assassination attempts against dozens of Libyan dissidents and émigrés and political opponents throughout the greater Middle East and Europe.
And let us not forget that he has committed acts of terrorism against America. In April 1986, Qaddafi ordered an attack on the La Belle discothèque in West Berlin, killing several U.S. servicemen and injuring well over 200 others. President Reagan responded to this attack by striking targets in Tripoli and Benghazi. Two years later, on December 21, 1988, a bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 innocent passengers. Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, was convicted of planting the bomb. In 2003, after denying Libyan involvement for years, Qaddafi's regime formally accepted responsibility for the attack. In February, Libyan justice minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil told a Swedish newspaper that Qaddafi personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing. It was not for nothing that Ronald Reagan called Qaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East.”
Qaddafi, while malevolent, is also shrewd. He is capable of adjusting his behavior when under pressure. After America decapitated Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Qaddafi—fearing he might meet a similar fate—agreed to abandon his support for terrorism, relinquish his programs for developing missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and made payments totaling $1.5 billion to the families of those killed on Pan Am 103. The United States later rescinded Libya's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Libya began to normalize relations with Western nations. Even a mad dog, it seemed, could be contained for a time. But as we have seen in recent weeks, in his response to the uprising of those seeking liberation from his rule, Qaddafi remains capable of wanton brutality and threats of terrorism against the West.
The United States, having gone to war against the Libyan regime, now has to decide whether or not to allow Qaddafi to stay in power. Acquiescing to Qaddafi's continued rule in Tripoli not only would be a disgrace, but a moral and strategic error of enormous consequence. The only decent outcome that can emerge from Operation Odyssey Dawn is to see Qaddafi gone. A person of unusual cruelty, the Libyan tyrant has built a grotesque and soul-destroying regime. Four decades-plus in power have been more than enough. It is time for the Butcher of Tripoli to leave the stage.
Whether that exit is accomplished by means of exile or cruise missile or hangman's noose is irrelevant. In this instance justice may be delayed. But it need not be denied.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.