Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is finally rotting in the ground, ending the unsavory spectacle of his bloody corpse on public display in a refrigerated vegetable locker. A guy like him was lucky not to end up with his head on a stake.
He was a terrible man who, like Saddam Hussein, came to a terrible end. This overdue event would never have happened without air support from the United States and the commitment of President Barack Obama, whose strategy was lambasted from day one by the usual windbags.
Amazingly, the overthrow of Gadhafi required no American invasion and long-term occupation. It took only a few months, and was carried out by the Libyan people, not a foreign power. Most importantly, it didn’t cost trillions of dollars and the lives of 4,400 American troops (and of more than 100,000 civilians).
After eight and a half costly years, we’re finally getting out of Iraq. We accomplished more in Libya by not going in.
In the months following the 9/11 attacks, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were looking around for an oppressed Muslim country to attack, they didn’t choose Libya. It would have been a more defensible choice, and they could easily have put out a similar story about imaginary weapons of mass destruction. (Gadhafi had the same number of those as Saddam did: zero).
But here’s what Libya had that Iraq didn’t: an actual history of terrorism against the United States, specifically the cowardly slaughter of American citizens.
Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York was blown up by a luggage bomb on Dec. 21, 1988, over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The death toll was 270, including 189 Americans.
The horrific and unprecedented scope of the attack — aimed at innocents aboard a commercial jumbo jet — began a new chapter of carnage for global terrorists. From early on, Libya was suspected of approving and funding the plot.
Gadhafi had been open in his contempt for the United States following several incidents in the Gulf of Sidra. He was believed to have ordered the 1986 bombing of a German nightclub that was a popular gathering spot for U.S. soldiers.
In retaliation, then-President Ronald Reagan sent U.S. war planes from a British airbase to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi. Gadhafi claimed that the attack killed an adopted young daughter.
Ultimately, two Libyans were convicted in the Pan Am 103 conspiracy, although it wasn’t until 2003 that the Gadhafi’s regime admitted “responsibility.” Eventually the country offered $1.5 billion in compensation for families of the victims.
These were not acts of the heart, or even remorse. They were part of a deal to resurrect Libya’s standing in the international community by having the United Nations lift trade sanctions.
It worked. In 2008, then-President Bush signed an order shielding Libya from future terror-related lawsuits and ending all current claims. A State Department spokesman said it was the first step toward a “continued and expanding U.S.-Libyan partnership.”
Many who lost loved ones on Pan Am 103 weren’t cheering the new arrangement. It did seem rather astounding, a diplomatic stamp of forgiveness for an unforgivable act.
And all this unfolded during our sixth year of occupation in Iraq, where we were supposedly installing democracy and freedom in the region. Saddam Hussein, the thug we drove from power, had never launched a terror mission against one of our airliners.
The guy who did was not only still in power, he was our new trade “partner.”
Was it possible that, over all those years, the volatile Gadhafi had morphed into a mellow, tolerant and beneficent leader? Was there a new, kinder and gentler Moammar at the helm?
Nope. He was still a blathering, hateful nut job who ruled Libya with an iron fist. The only difference was that he apparently gave up his ambition to be a kingpin of international terrorism.
Over the past year, as the Mideast boiled restlessly, the breadth of Gadhafi’s unpopularity at home was made evident by those he so ruthlessly ruled. Obama saw an opening and he took it.
Using NATO was smart. So was the decision to keep U.S. troops off the ground. Providing air power and intelligence to the rebels was critical, but not risk-free. Some top advisers in the Pentagon advised the president not to do it, fearing the effort would fall short and that Gadhafi’s forces would prevail.
Now some of the Republican presidential contenders are saying Obama waited too long and didn’t do enough. Meanwhile, in Libya, celebrations of Gadhafi’s downfall continue.
Putting together a new government in Tripoli won’t be easy, but at least the task is in the hands of the people and not foreign soldiers of occupation. Our soldiers.
This is no small accomplishment. A truly crazed person is gone from power, a person who bankrolled what was, until 9/11, the most shocking terrorist attack against an American domestic target.
Now Gadhafi is dead and buried, and we’re not in charge of the mess he left behind. In such times, it’s hard to envision a better outcome.
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)
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