Muammar Gaddafi has a history of using terrorism to get even with his political enemies. And if he retains power, it’s a good bet that he will use terrorism to retaliate against America for our support of the Libyan opposition.
Undersecretary of State Bill Burns acknowledged as much when he told Congress that “the danger of [Gaddafi] returning to terrorism and violent extremism” is real. But based on Gaddafi’s long track record, a return to terrorism is more likely a guarantee.
In 1986, Gaddafi ordered the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub to retaliate against American strikes on Libya, and it is believed that he ordered the Lockerbie bombing in part as a response to America’s efforts to topple his regime. Gaddafi also ordered the bombing of UTA Flight 772 to retaliate against France. The Libyan dictator admitted to sponsoring these acts of terror in 2008 when he agreed to compensate the victims.
Gaddafi curtailed his support of terrorism to gain favor with the world community (and he was rewarded with a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council). But now that he has nothing to lose, it’s a safe bet he will use terrorism to strike back against his enemies, just as he has done in the past. This is yet another reason why the international community must help topple the tyrant.
Some might argue that Gaddafi is guided by the principle of self-preservation, and therefore he would not return to terrorism because it might lead the world community to take more aggressive steps to remove him. This line of thinking rests on two questionable assumptions.
First, it would be hard to trace an act of terrorism back to Gaddafi. Although he is widely believed to be directly responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, actual proof (at least in the public sphere) has proved elusive. And if Gaddafi limited his support to providing funding and safe harbor for terrorists, it’s hard to imagine countries using that as a justification to commit military forces in Libya.
Second, it is dangerous to assume that Gaddafi is a rational actor. His past actions show that he is willing to risk his life and regime to redress perceived grievances and wrongs. When President Reagan failed to remove Gaddafi from power, a rational man may have left good enough alone. Gaddafi did not; instead he retaliated with terrorist acts against America. It’s a mistake to automatically assume he would act differently this time.
The United States and the world community have already incited Gaddafi’s rage by supporting the Libyan opposition. Even if we do nothing else, our direct security is at risk if Gaddafi is triumphant. Gaddafi has the financial resources to sponsor a serious attack, and although he technically gave up his WMD program, it’s possible that vestiges of it remain.
This is to say nothing of the other overwhelming factors favoring his removal: the safety of the people of Libya, the world’s obligation to stop mass murder and gross human rights violations, the emboldening message Gaddafi’s victory would send to other dictators, and the crippling effect it would have on opposition groups in countries such as Iran.
There are tremendous risks to military intervention, and the administration is right to be cautious about committing U.S. forces to any combat operations in Libya. But when considering our options, it’s important to dispel the notion that America doesn’t have a direct interest in the fight.
We must work with the international community to ensure that Gaddafi is deposed, because our security and values depend on it. The recently passed UN resolution is a good place to start. Hopefully it will also lead to the end of Gaddafi.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.