As I write this morning, the Libyan rebels are battling to seize Colonel Qaddafi’s surrounded Furhrerbunker, and the Untergang seems near.
Yes, the differences may be as great as the similarities, but the similarities are still significant. The fall of the Libyan government to a popular uprising would have been unthinkable a year ago. Libya was a totalitarian state with no opposition movement, in which subversive ideas could not circulate freely. Like Syria, where recent events have been just as unthinkable, it had been one of those places in this world where the state’s power was absolute and beyond challenge. But eventually in such places, the unthinkable always happens.
The lesson that some cynics will take from this is that states should not abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons. They’re not entirely wrong when they say this. Had Qaddafi taken a different path, it’s possible that today, he might have been able to put a crude nuclear weapon aboard a commercial vessel and sail it to Europe. Would that capability have given NATO pause in supporting the rebels? Probably. Kim Jong Il is so cognizant of this today that he now feels he can launch a limited war against South Korea with impunity. Events have proven him right.
Many would say that because Kim Jong Il probably could deliver a crude nuclear weapon to South Korea that the United States does not dare to support his enemies when they also rise. But the United States has openly called for Bashad Assad to step down and has given diplomatic support to those who wish to overthrow him. Asad could easily have retaliated by attacking Israel with his substantial arsenal of North Korean-made missiles, and the chemical weapons they probably contain. Why doesn’t he? Because Assad knows that Israeli’s defenses are good, and he knows that its deterrent is real. He knows that an attack would invite a counter-strike that would decimate the security services, armor, and infrastructure of power he needs to resist the millions who despise him. In such a circumstance, it hardly matters what kind of warheads he has on his SCUD-C’s. He correctly calculates that using them poses a greater risk to his regime than not using them. One day, Kim Jong Il will have to make the same decision. Are you listening, South Korea?
Qaddafi’s abandonment of nuclear weapons did not resolve the West’s grievances with him, and Kim Jong Il’s abandonment of nuclear weapons would not resolve our differences with his regime, either. NATO was still unwilling to tolerate Qaddafi staging another Srebrenica in Benghazi and other Libyan cities, and it was right that it was not. For many, the grudges over Qaddafi’s past sponsorship of terrorism were never forgiven. Those who view our differences with North Korea as (almost) exclusively differences over its nuclear programs ought to be realistic enough to see that there will always be other differences that bring us to the point of crisis, but then, we’re speaking of people who are still unrealistic enough to believe that North Korea can be coaxed into nuclear disarmament at all. Thankfully, that view is increasingly confined to the fringes. But we’ve been slow to perceive alternatives — partially because they’re frightening and unconventional, partially because they’re offensive to China and its many agents of influence, and partially because the debate is dominated by people who think only in terms of talking.
Why is Libya falling while Bashar Assad hangs on? Because for all the courage of the Syrian people, who stand up to snipers and tanks, theirs is not a place where a revolution can succeed unless it eventually resorts to force. It’s impossible not to admire the tenacity of the Syrian people in fighting their tyrant and in maintaining their determination to keep their movement non-violent. It’s especially admirable in a part of the world we too often associate with an easy resort to violence. But no conceivable scenario for dislodging Bashar Assad from power omits the eventual necessity of force — a coup, a split in the security forces, an armed uprising on the Libyan model, or (most likely) the evolution of the Syrian revolution into an insurgency that imports its bomb-making and bomb-placing tactics from across the Iraqi border, beginning in places like Deir al-Zour. People in Syria — and elsewhere — will be watching events in Tripoli and wondering if it could happen there, too.
Finally, this is a vindication of President Obama’s Libya policy. Yes, we can argue that the halting application of force protracted the war, and that Libya was never the threat to U.S. interests that the Syrian regime represents, even as the State Department clung to the illusion that Assad was redeemable. But the administration has engineered the end of one of the world’s most odious regimes — and still one that potentially threatened our interests — without introducing U.S. ground forces or taking U.S. casualties. The Libyan people can rightly claim this victory as theirs, and NATO has hopefully learned that a reasonable level of defense spending can extend its relevance as a force for good. The next phase will be messy, but the very duration of the revolution may have given breathing space for liberal elements to organize and circulate their ideas. And it will not be our phase. For all of his supporters’ anti-neocon rhetoric, the president they helped elect has done our country a great service by reminding us of the best way to change a bad regime.
If only President Obama would see that variations of this strategy — variations that should not involve the direct application of American force — should also be applied to the unpopular and dangerous regimes in Syria and Iran.
And perhaps even other places.