Osama bin Laden and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi dead; former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and family behind bars with millions of dollars of assets frozen; former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sentenced to 35 years in absentia; the Bosnian war criminal Ratko Mladic awaiting trial in The Hague. We can take a moment to recognize that sometimes things go astonishingly well — the removal of these five characters from the picture is a blessing.
Whatever doubts we have about Qaddafi’s death and the absence of due process (if you cannot even decide where to bury a man, it is a good rule not to kill him), his death is a bracing lesson for the likes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is torturing young demonstrators to death, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and King Hamad of Bahrain, both of whom are drenched in the blood of their countrymen.
The knowledge that just 12 months ago Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi all looked untouchable must cause the goofy-looking butcher of Damascus and his fragrant missus to clutch at each other in the wee small hours.
The NATO intervention was right and would be even if it had not gone so well for the rebels in the past three months. At the time the decision was taken, I was in Tunisia, in the stunned aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure, looking up the timeline of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, when Mladic separated the men from the women and young children and went on to murder 8,000 people. Benghazi, the eastern city where Qaddafi did his military training, was as vulnerable as the Bosniak enclave. His mercenaries would have created a bloodbath if they had not been driven from the outskirts as the first air strikes began.
I was not optimistic — Libya seemed too vast, Qaddafi too cunning and the rebel forces hopelessly amateur. And there were doubts whether air power alone could achieve the result that it did. However, after 26,000 air sorties and 9,600 strike missions, and a lot of blood spilled, the regime is no more and British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy can quietly take a bow. Both are nimble politicians, yet it is not unduly naive to believe they were influenced by the memory of what happened in Bosnia.
There is always a basic moral requirement to intervene, but any decision to act must gauge risk and the likelihood of achieving success. The seemingly pragmatic considerations also contain a moral element, because the interventionist obviously has an obligation not to inflame local opinion or create a situation worse than the one he is seeking to alleviate. These conditions were met in Libya, yet there was the additional incentive of the country’s “sweet, light” crude and the reserves of 46.4 billion barrels, which have nothing to do with morality or Srebrenica.
Stage two of the Arab Spring began on Sunday with elections in Tunisia for the Constituent Assembly, in which the Islamist party An-Nahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, are likely to do well. This is the first big test for the West because we have to allow the people who risked everything on the streets to develop their own politics and democratic processes.
Nor should we allow ourselves to be spooked by what happens in the Egyptian elections on Nov. 28, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s well-organized political wing, the Freedom and Justice party, is expected to trounce nascent secular parties.