Gaddafi’s death: Did ‘leading from the rear’ work?

Libyans celebrating the death of Muammar Gaddafi in Martyrs Square on Thursday.
REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Libyans celebrating the death of Muammar Gaddafi in Martyrs Square on Thursday.

Assuming the reports are confirmed, the death of Moammar Gaddafi is a good thing for Libya and the world. Although the number of deaths he caused does not put him in a league with the historical leaders in that category like Hitler, Stalin or Mao, during Gaddafi’s amazingly long rule, he was certainly in the running for craziest dictator in the world (but watch out for those North Koreans).

We won’t know for some time whether Libya (or Iraq, or Egypt, or etc.) can establish a meaningful, stable democracy. With its oil wealth and small population, it could be a wealthy country.

Gaddafi (and yes, there seems to be no consensus on how to spell his name in English) took power by coup in 1969, so his crazy, bloody rule lasted an incredible 42 years. This is, in some sense, a disgrace against all of humanity. I certainly did nothing to bring about his overthrow, so I won’t point any fingers.

International law is still more of an aspiration than a reality. I don’t favor defunding or disbanding the United Nations (or getting the U.S. out of it). But the U.N. is not a body that prevents global embarrassments like Gaddafi or Saddam, nor does it seem able to play much of a rule in ending these situations.

A still image taken from video footage purported to be the corpse of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori
A still image taken from video footage purported to be the corpse of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

It’s a good thing, on balance, that the impetus for Gaddafi’s demise seems to have started with Libyans and Libyans continued to play the leading on-the-ground role, although it seems likely that they could not have made it to today’s news without the NATO air campaign (which, itself, was almost certainly a violation of international law).

Then there’s the good ol’ U.S.A. We have no more legal or moral right to run around the world toppling whichever dictators (or, in many historical cases, non-dictators) we deem to be the most evil nor the most inconvenient (for our famous and never quite-defined list of “vital interests”) at any given time. Sometimes we do it anyway, and sometimes we don’t and there is always someone — currently the Neocons — who seem to want us to do it more often or to topple some particular bad man.

In the Libya case, President Obama seems to have tried a bit of an experiment, with quite limited use of direct U.S. military power. He once referred to it as “leading from the rear,” which is a pretty strange formulation that nonetheless seems to describe the experiment. It’s pretty clear that if Obama had done nothing, Gaddafi would still be in power.

Obama has of course been pilloried for doing too much or doing not enough, and the “leading from the rear” line is standard mockery from Repubs.

It’s way too soon to declare that Libya  is a success — for the Libyans or for Obama’s experiment. Same with Egypt, same with the Arab Spring in general. It’s hard to imagine, but things could end up worse than where they started. But I’m betting against the idea that anyone outside of his immediate family and cronies will look back on the embarrassingly long Gaddafi era as the golden age of Libya.

Good luck to Libya and to us all.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/20/2011 - 11:28 am.

    “…I’m betting against the idea that anyone outside of his immediate family and cronies will look back on the embarrassingly long Gaddafi era as the golden age of Libya.”

    As am I.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/20/2011 - 11:50 am.

    It’s pretty clear that the west has been long complicit in the retention of Gaddafi. What other acknowledged war criminal, international terrorist sponsor, WMD seeker and distributor, and generally all-around crazy guy had been “rehabilitated” in international society like Gaddafi had been in the past decade? No less crazy, no less sneaky, no less criminal, yet hundreds of millions in weapons sales to him in the past few years.

    Good riddance to him.

    And the best thing is, it is seen as the people of Libya doing it. Perfectly handled–what would we have to be doing now if we had been the “leader in the front”? How long before we would be in the political quagmire that we created in Afghanistan and Iraq by “leading from the front”?

    Can anyone point out a government that was handpicked by the CIA for post-coup governing that has ever worked out?

    It’s going to be messy for years, in Libya and a lot of other countries, but self-determination in the twin hurricanes of democracy and instant communication sweeping the world is the only way that it can happen and be sustainable.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/20/2011 - 12:56 pm.

    I think that Gaddafi (there is no ‘correct’ transliteration from the Arabic) had already become irrelevant. I doubt that his death matters, except maybe emotionally to some Libyans. The nature of that reaction depends on which tribe they’re affiliated with.
    If there is a real issue, it is whether the deaths of Gaddafi and his children will affect reclaiming the money that he looted from the Libyan treasury.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/20/2011 - 01:14 pm.

    Obama did what he’s best at: Nothing.

    And that seems to be working pretty well for him.

    He doesn’t get the blame or the recognition for any of the military actions we’re currently engaged in. For the most part he’s left GWB’s plans in place to play out in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he let the French deal with Gaddafi.

    Guess that’s where the “Hopey” part comes in.

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/20/2011 - 04:23 pm.

    Gaddafi dies unceremoniously in a drain pipe and Heritage Oil(London firm) doesn’t blink because it has sealed its contracts with National Transitional Council some weeks ago; maybe months earlier…so what’s-in-it-for-me must be the hue and cry from every drooling Superpower waiting in the wings after all the bloodshed turns to brown and is mere dust in the streets of Libya’s villages.

    The civilians of Serte are faceless commodities in the picture and according to Pepe Escobar at, local residents are literally starving, so regional Imams gave the people the right to eat dogs and cats.

    I suppose the fallen arches, McDonald’s will be the first to come to the rescue selling franchises all over the place…so which is to be the tastier gourmet-of-the-day
    …dogs, cats or Big Mac?

    And any wealth from oil will go into the pockets of the attendant superpowers working more subtly with; possibly joined at the hip profiteering with, top dog, Heritage Oil and…

    …and the ones who fought for freedom…will they be represented or benefiting from the profits of that victory achieved in a most tragic, bloody struggle?

    The world is beginning to dispose of its Celeb-Terrorists…but investor/bankers who survive to exploit, and do again that strange type of ‘benevolent terrorism’ by controlling a nation when it’s too tired to distrust it’s smiling ‘benefactors’?

  6. Submitted by David Willard on 10/20/2011 - 05:08 pm.

    Was Gaddafi read his Miranda rights? oh my! I bet pROGRESSyVVES WILL BE STEAMED!

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/20/2011 - 06:28 pm.

    More Swiftean revisionism.
    GWB moved troops out of Afghanistan into Iraq — Obama reversed that process.

    And Mr. Willard–
    I’d suggest that you look up who the Miranda rights (recently modified) apply to. Progressives at least understand the law.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/20/2011 - 07:31 pm.

    “Obama did what he’s best at: Nothing.”

    /Obama’s approach in Libya has had no where near the success of G.W. Bush’s management of the Iraq war.

    Uh, I mean Bush’s success in Afghanistan.

    Actually, I meant Reagon’s approach in Lebanon.

    Well okay, make that Nixon’s approach in Vietnam and Cambodia./

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/20/2011 - 10:08 pm.

    Now all we need is for Obama to “lead from the rear” on the economy.

  10. Submitted by rolf westgard on 10/21/2011 - 06:32 am.

    This a triumph for Obama. The comparison of the relative effort to remove Saddam and Gaddaffi is a clear indication of how much better off we are with Obama.

  11. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/21/2011 - 07:32 am.

    (#8): You forgot Reagan’s triumphant Grenada invasion–a mix of all the best ‘big war’ problems:

    Via Wikipedia


    The invasion showed problems with the U.S. government’s “information apparatus,” which Time described as still being in “some disarray” three weeks after the invasion. For example, the U.S. State Department falsely claimed that a mass grave had been discovered that held 100 bodies of islanders who had been killed by Communist forces.[5] Major General Norman Schwarzkopf, deputy commander of the invasion force, said that 160 Grenadian soldiers and 71 Cubans had been killed during the invasion; the Pentagon had given a much lower count of 59 Cuban and Grenadian deaths.[5] Ronald H. Cole’s report for the Joint Chiefs of Staff showed an even lower count.[19]

    Also of concern were the problems that the invasion showed with the military. There was a lack of intelligence about Grenada, which exacerbated the difficulties faced by the quickly assembled invasion force. For example, it was not known that the students were actually at two different campuses and there was a thirty-hour delay in reaching students at the second campus.[5] Maps provided to soldiers on the ground were rudimentary, did not show topography, and were not marked with crucial positions. The U.S. Navy ships providing naval gunfire and U.S. Marine and Navy fighter bomber support, as well as U.S. Air Force aircraft providing close air support mistakenly fired upon and killed U.S. ground forces due to differences in maps and location coordinates, datum, and methods of calling for fire support. The landing strip was drawn-in by hand on the map given to some members of the invasion force.

    (end quote)

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/21/2011 - 07:45 am.

    Republicans could never make up their own minds whether they wanted Obama to do more, less or nothing at all. Though it took time, the president’s strategy worked out almost exactly as he predicted.

  13. Submitted by Jim Roth on 10/21/2011 - 11:40 am.

    Thomas, It seems that nothing Obama does or doesn’t do satisfies you. And you seem to follow the line of the Repubican “contenders” that Obama deserves credit for nothing. Do you have a positive alternative to offer?

  14. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/21/2011 - 03:57 pm.

    Right wingers like Swiftee loathe and despise Obama and are not about to let facts get in the way.

    See for example, Swiftee’s close personal friend, Mitchell Berg who writes:

    “There are many, many reasons Barack Obama is not qualified or fit to serve as President.

    Let’s focus on the ones that matter; he’s a socialist; his background for office was never adequate; he oozes contempt for everyone who’s not like him; many of his supporters are reprehensible scumbags.”


    What ever happened to the loyal opposition? It has been replaced by trash talkers like this.

  15. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2011 - 06:50 pm.

    ‘positive’ and ‘Republican’ in the same sentence!

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