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.
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.