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Let He Who Lobbed No Missiles Judge Libya Rebels—A Commentary by Stephen L. Carter ’79

The following commentary was posted on Bloomberg.com on October 26, 2011.

Let He Who Lobbed No Missiles Judge Libya Rebels
By Stephen L. Carter ’79

On the day Muammar Qaddafi died, a French warplane and an American drone attacked the convoy in which he was trying to escape Sirte. He survived with minor wounds. Suppose instead we had successfully blown him to bits. Would Western officials now be calling for an investigation of his death?

I suspect not. We would be busily congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

It’s useful to keep this in mind when considering the rising chorus of calls for an investigation into the circumstances of Qaddafi’s death. After we destroyed the fallen dictator’s convoy, he hid in a drainage ditch, from which the rebels dragged him, still very much alive -- all the world has seen the video -- and evidently begging for his life. Instead, he was shot in the head, perhaps even with his own golden gun, wielded by the now-famous young man in the Yankees cap.

The sudden execution of even so vicious a tyrant as Qaddafi has evidently been more reality than critics want to face. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has added her voice to those of United Nations officials and leaders of human-rights organizations, demanding to know what really happened after Qaddafi was seized.

In a world whose conceit is that it is governed by the rule of law, these calls are easy to understand. But they misapprehend both the nature and the history of violent revolution. It isn’t uncommon for vicious dictators to face vicious ends at the hands of victorious revolutionaries, and no amount of public fulmination is likely to alter this harsh truth.

Consider, for example, the fate of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. After their surprisingly rapid overthrow in December 1989, they were turned over to the army, given a brief show trial on Christmas Day, and executed immediately. Their deaths in custody were not really much different than whatever happened to Qaddafi, for nobody imagines for an instant that the trial was anything but a prelude to the killing. It put them on a list that now includes Benito Mussolini, Samuel Doe, Laurent Kabila and any number of others.

Revolutions are like that. Their endings are often horrific, and the worse the dictator, it seems, the harsher the punishment. Hannah Arendt once distinguished between compassionate and passionate revolutions. The compassionate revolutionary uses mainly law and argument to achieve his ends; the passionate revolutionary uses mainly violence. For Arendt, the French Revolution was passionate; the American compassionate.

The compassionate revolution is far more likely to lead, in short order, to a recognizably liberal regime, capable of undertaking the great tasks of freedom and democracy. The passionate revolution is apocalyptic and destructive, and shudders with fresh waves of violence even after the war is won.

It’s impossible to justify the brutal slaying of a prisoner, even so wicked a man as Qaddafi. But it’s easy to understand. Frantz Fanon, the 20th-century apostle of armed revolution, warned that no rules will apply to the end of the struggle. A violent rebellion, he wrote, “hoists the people up to the level of the leader” -- by which he meant that a true revolution has no true leader. Thus, Fanon argued, when the revolution succeeds, the revolutionaries will never be, in the first flush of victory, subject to any central control. Having overthrown one authority, they won’t be in any rush to subject themselves to another.

Fanon, of course, was seeking to justify the often horrific conduct of revolutionary movements. But we need not agree that such vicious murders are justified to accept that they may be inevitable. After four decades of torture and murder under Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya, his rebel captors were unlikely to be in a compassionate mood.

We must also remember that the Libyan revolution was in many ways our revolution. If the West believes its own justification for intervening, we must accept that without our help, the rebels would have been slaughtered. But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization interceded -- the U.S., particularly, interceded by destroying for all practical purposes the Libyan air defenses on the first day of the war, thus allowing other Western nations to fly risk-free sorties over the ensuing months. Western leaders, including President Barack Obama, repeatedly insisted that there would be no boots on the ground and, but for a handful of Special Forces teams, there were none.

Nevertheless, we pressed the assault on Qaddafi’s forces with enormous vigor. Whatever our claims about protecting civilians, it became clear to all the world, very quickly, that NATO was taking sides, blowing up any government military equipment that moved.

If killing Qaddafi was wrong, the West is poorly positioned to claim the high moral ground. It was the West that flattened Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound and drove him to flee to Sirte. It was the West that attacked his escape convoy at the end. What did we think would happen if he survived our missiles? Did we imagine somehow that the furious rebels on the ground, in the swirling violence of their passionate revolution, would show more mercy than we? This is why boots on the ground matter. If we want the end of the war to be governed by the right set of rules, then it is best to have armed troops in place to enforce them -- as we did in Iraq. Had Saddam Hussein been discovered in his hole in the ground near his hometown of Tikrit not by U.S. forces but by Iraqi irregulars who had brought down his government, it is difficult to really imagine that his fate would have been any different from Qaddafi’s.

In Iraq, the U.S. and its allies overthrew the dictator and, in that sense, took responsibility for him; and so he faced an actual trial (albeit by the new government we helped establish). In Libya, by deciding from the start that the real war -- the battle on the ground -- would be entirely Libyan, we left Qaddafi to the swift and violent judgment of the revolution we unleashed.

The consequences of involvement in the affairs of other nations are no more predictable, or less dire, in the age of Bush and Obama than they were in the age of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. In war terrible things happen. In the passionate revolution, the things that happen are worse. To imagine that the passions of the violently oppressed will somehow be mediated or mitigated by the rule of law is like believing that royal command will hold back the tide.

(Stephen L. Carter, a novelist, professor of law at Yale University and the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)