Politics: 21 March 2011

All the Faces of Gaddafi

It bothers me how Gaddafi is perceived throughout the developed world—especially in the United States. Once he was a villain. I remember when Reagan bombed him and how it upset me—not so much because I cared about Gaddafi or because I was philosophically against war but because I didn’t know where it would lead. It seemed like there was a lot of that during the Reagan-Bush years: running into conflicts without much thought. It seems like we are doing that now. That in itself is troubling, but what bothers me more is why it is so easy for us to do. For a few years, Gaddafi was a “good guy.” But the truth was that he never really got off our shit list. I think that if he had behaved and been a “good boy” for longer, he would have become an eternal “good guy.” If that transition had taken place, I doubt we would be bombing there now. My concern is that what we think about a country or leader—not what they do—determines what actions we take in these situations. If Gaddafi had a good reputation in the United States, the press coverage of his actions would have been told more from his perspective: the anti-terrorist narrative. And as a result, there wouldn’t be anything close to 70% of the country in favor of the no-fly zone.

I really don’t know what I think about the bombing of Libya. On the one hand, I think Gaddafi and his regime have been doing terrible things and that they should be stopped. On the other hand, I’m afraid that we may end up doing more harm than good. It reminds me of the invasion of Iraq. There was no doubt that Hussein was a bad guy[1], but it is doubtful that in all of his life he did and would have done nearly as much damage as we did. The case in Libya is at least clearer: Gaddafi was actively doing harm to his people. When Hussein was doing that, we just stood by and watched. But I’m still not sure.

[1] I seem to be unable to use the term “good guy” without scare quotes, but have no similar problem with “bad guy.” I think there is a lot in this. For whatever reason, I think “good guy” implies some kind of perfection, like having never done bad, while “bad guy” implies only badness past a certain, unacceptable, level. Another part of this has to do with the fact that I don’t think any ruler or ruling authority is ever good. Good people just aren’t attracted to power over others. (However, some are better than others.) I’m sure there is much more as well. Regardless, I am not going to change this idiosyncrasy, since I don’t see it as inconsistent.