Libyan Leader's Death, Like His Life, May Have Little Effect on Region

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What happens in Libya, it seems, stays in Libya

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A picture of Muammar el-Qaddafi lies in the ashes in downtown Surt, Libya / AP

For more than 40 years, Muammar el-Qaddafi danced to the dictates of his own very strange drummer. In the 1980s the eccentric Libyan leader was eagerly looking to launch acts of terrorism as a way of currying favor with Soviet-bloc nations. Even before the notorious La Belle Disco bombing in Berlin in 1986 that killed two U.S. servicemen -- Qaddafi's debut as an international terrorist and American bogeyman -- "we were talking to the Germans about stopping his activities," says Richard Burt, who was then ambassador to West Germany. 

In the 2000s, after two decades as an outlaw and amassing a secret nuclear stash, Qaddafi abruptly turned tail, surrendered all his weapons of mass destruction, revealed a vast black market for nuclear materials and equipment, and won a lifting of U.S. sanctions. The Bush administration cited his response as an example of how the Iraq invasion in 2003 could cow dictators, talking of a "Libya model." But in truth Qaddafi was the only dictator who caved.

Now Qaddafi's reported death near the end of a NATO-assisted revolution in Libya -- confirmed to National Journal by a NATO country official -- is being held up by some observers as the clearest-cut triumph yet for the flagging Arab Spring. "It's the only true and complete revolution of the Arab Spring in the sense that the old order has been overturned," says Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "In Egypt, by contrast, it sometimes seems that what the military did was to get rid of the dictator in order to preserve the dictatorship."

But it's reasonable to wonder whether the manner of Qaddafi's death will follow the pattern of his life, supplying only more evidence that he and his regime have always been outliers, even in the Arab world. "I think what happened in Libya will stay in Libya," says Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador and senior official in the region and now a professor at Princeton University. "He's always been sui generis. I don't think you can compare the Libyan regime to any of the others. He came up with his own version of Islam, for heaven's sake. His own little Green Book. Whether the guy was certifiably nuts or a mad genius or just mad, that we're never going to know."

The Libyan revolution was sui generis as well. It never really had a peaceful protest phase, like the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria, instead exploding into armed rebellion almost immediately. Then NATO began serving, uniquely, as the rebels' air force against Qaddafi's forces. "There have been some common threads in these rebellions. First of all, these countries have got enormously young populations, economies that are not working, huge unemployment problems amid a technology revolution," says Bodine. "But each of these is playing out according to a very unique timeline.... All are extraordinarily unique in what got them to catch fire."

No doubt, remaining dictators such as Bashar Assad of Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen are a little more afraid today. But if the end of Qaddafi fails to supply much of a precedent or revive the Arab democracy movement, it might well be welcomed by President Obama, who has been reluctant to invoke the U.S. role assisting NATO as any kind of precedent. Already bogged down in two unpopular wars, the president has been eager to point out in recent months that no U.S. casualties have resulted from the NATO action in Libya. U.S. officials have been dogged in resisting any kind of comparison to the humanitarian plight of Syrian protesters as Assad's regime cracks down brutally.

Not surprisingly, Obama has received little credit in the polls for this and other foreign-policy victories that might help his low ratings on leadership, including the takedown of Osama bin Laden in May. 

Qaddafi's death brings to an end a bizarre and tangled relationship with the United States dating back five presidents to Ronald Reagan. It might also be a grimly satisfying verdict for many Americans after a three-decade-long series of frightening acts that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Americans, perhaps most tragically aboard Pan Am 103 in 1988. As one former official of the Reagan administration put it wistfully on Thursday, recalling the air strike that Reagan ordered on Qaddafi's compound after the La Belle bombing, "We wanted to get him then. It's kind of too bad that wasn't successful at the time. It would have saved a lot of people from dying in the meantime."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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