He remained a dangerous man and stockpiled lethal chemical weapons, but he was put in check and his impact was limited. Then, soon after he witnessed Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein being dragged from a hole in 2003, Qadhafi denounced terrorism and announced that he would relinquish his weapons of mass destruction, open his country to international inspectors and join the fight against terrorism. When I and five other members of Congress met with Qadhafi in Tripoli in 2004, I came away cautiously optimistic.
“This would be a safer world if we had Libya working with us in the war against terrorism,” I said after the meeting. “But, obviously, this is also a nation that has a history of supporting state-sponsored terrorism.”
Qadhafi kept his word. The international community verified he eliminated his weapons of mass destruction and Qadhafi actively joined the fight against terrorist groups, including al Qaeda. He repressed al Qaeda in Libya and provided useful intelligence on the jihadist group to the United States and our allies. That made him hated and an al Qaeda target. Al Qaeda joined and influenced the Libyan opposition from the outset and today they operate freely and their influence is growing.
Our diplomatic relations with Qadhafi since 2004 were similar to the United States’ 30-year diplomatic relations with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Neither were high on my list of people to go fishing with, but for more than seven years Qadhafi kept a lid on the violence emanating from his country. For 30 years we gave as much foreign aid to Egypt as we did to Israel, ensuring a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel.
When the Arab Spring uprisings began, President Barack Obama was more than eager to effect regime change in a shortsighted attempt to promote democracy in the region. Under the president’s charge, and largely financed with American taxpayer dollars, Qadhafi was overthrown and we turned our backs on Mubarak.
Instead of nation states we can keep in check, we now have lawless countries. In Libya, the government is weak and the terrorists are gaining control. That was evident Tuesday when our U.S. embassy in Benghazi was burned in what appears to be a planned attack inspired by al Qaeda. U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered in the assault. The Libyan security force sent to guard the embassy during the protest was outgunned by the terrorists.
No one was killed in the earlier attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, but protesters tore down the U.S. flag, burned it, and replaced it with a flag popular with Islamic fundamentalists.
Worse yet, the Muslim Brotherhood controls the Egyptian government. When the uprisings began, some of my colleagues played down the Brotherhood’s role in the opposition. They only comprise 20 percent of the opposition, they said. Correct, I replied, but they make up 98 percent of the opposition’s leadership.
Diplomacy is a messy game and some will argue that we made deals with the devil in Qadhafi and Mubarak. But those deals were necessary to maintain peace in the region and to protect U.S. and Israeli interests – the region’s only true democracy. We have gone from stability in North Africa with leaders who were our allies, to instability and emerging regimes that see America as the enemy.
President Obama calculated poorly and America, Israel and other democracies of the world face the real possibility of having enemies where once we had allies. Libya soon could again support state-sponsored terrorism, as could Egypt. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but this president, or the next one, needs to strategize now on how to contain the genie like we did with Qadhafi and Mubarak.
Gallegly is a the vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.