December 30, 2003 | Wall Street Journal

Deal With the Devil

With Moammar Gadhafi's conversion–if that's what it is–there's greater hope that other tyrants may scrap their programs for weapons of mass murder and offer snap, unconditional tours of such amenities as their poison factories and uranium centrifuge facilities. That's worth celebrating.

But there's also good reason for the U.S., Britain and our other democratic allies to calibrate far more prudently the enthusiasm of their response when a tyrant gives up weapons programs he shouldn't have had in the first place. In hailing Gadhafi's move, Prime Minister Tony Blair praised him as “courageous.” President Bush announced that “Libya has begun the process of rejoining the community of nations.” And the growing prospect of the U.S. lifting sanctions and U.S. oil companies returning to revive Libya's decrepit petroleum infrastructure has somehow acquired the sheen of reform, as if it were part of the process of bringing Libya back to civilization.

Folks, we've overshot. Should this precedent now mean that if North Korea's Kim Jong Il gives up his bombs and missiles, he will be hailed as a statesman, exonerated of the deaths of millions in his own country, and promised U.S. backing for a long fat life in power? Does it mean the Iranian ayatollahs only have to stop brewing fissile material to be reborn as our pals of the Middle East? Should we now understand that if Slobodan Milosevic had only had the wit to keep power while pursuing germ, gas and nuclear weapons which he then agreed to renounce, he would now be lauded by Washington and London, instead of on trial in The Hague?

First, it was neither courage nor some sort of Augustinian epiphany that prompted Gadhafi's decision. It was fear. Over the past two years, U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated a vital truth of modern warfare: The U.S. has the power to remove by force any individual regime it chooses to focus on. No, we cannot by any stretch remove all enemy regimes, but the message, which evidently reached Gadhafi, is that any tyrant who prefers to avoid a Saddam-style medical exam would be wise to keep his head down, his weapons conventional and his name off the top of the U.S. enemies charts.

This is a terrific turn of events, providing useful leverage for the U.S. In negotiating with despots, there is little virtue to offering carrots, which involve extending our own measure of trust. Among tyrants, that tends to inspire not reform and respect, but contempt and betrayal (Kim Jong Il, take a bow). Far more effective with this crowd is the stick (or, in Saddam's case, the tongue depressor).

And certainly in U.S. efforts to channel this fear toward the desirable end of despots disarming, there is logic to letting tyrants know that once they give up their weapons of mass murder, they can rest assured that they have dropped a few notches on the U.S. military's to-do list.

But tyrants as a rule face another kind of threat, not from the U.S. and its allies, but from their own subjects. They live in terror of the day their victims right there at home–those who know them best, those whose lives they have most violated–might seize any chance to rally in the streets, to plot a coup, to finally unseat the despot and his regime. And for the U.S. or any other democratic nation to reward tyrants by praising them, guaranteeing their safety or even enhancing it against this kind of internal threat is folly. It is a betrayal of American principles, of the human beings who live under tyrannical rule, and–as Iraq under Saddam so richly illustrated–it only postpones the day the trouble must be dealt with.

This is the path we have been treading for some time with North Korea, from the mid-1990s until last year supplying aid to the Pyongyang regime, and still providing a sort of fearful deference, an overzealous interest in striking deals with a government built on deceit. In Washington's eagerness to resume talks these next few weeks with North Korea's Kim, there is an unseemly indifference not only to the basic rights and interests of North Korea's more than 22 million people, but also to a long record in which the “stability” of North Korea's government has been a constantly simmering danger to the civilized world.

These are devil's deals we need not make.

And while weapons of mass murder deserve plenty of attention, it is unwise to focus on them to the exclusion of other depredations, and at the cost of excusing tyrants from behavior that tends to spawn and spread awful ruin in other ways. The war on terror is not simply a contest of arsenals but a war of ideas about how mankind should be governed. Gadhafi, with his brutal habits and deep appetite for power has been meddling militarily and buying influence for years in Africa–which, even in absence of WMDs, in no way works toward any cause of prosperity or peace. Whether that will now end remains to be seen. There is no reason to credit in advance a ruler who has never dealt even with his own people in good faith.

Or take, for instance, the Saudi royals, who even without the advantage of WMDs have fostered a murderous global network of Wahhabi teachings that continue to threaten the democratic world. Sept. 11, as many have noted, did not require advanced weapons of mass murder. In fact, in the long catalog of modern wars, political atrocities and terrorist acts, almost every item to date has depended upon purely conventional equipment, wielded by tyrants and their spawn.

In Libya's case, Gadhafi is bartering not on behalf of his country's 5.4 million people, but for his own power–which is in no way in Libya's interest. By what right has he ruled and wrecked his country for 34 years? He continues to run Libya as a prison state, a place of “revolutionary committees” with the power to jail anyone and appropriate anything in the name of his custom-molded regime. If modern oil companies now come trooping in, odds are that they will enhance not the rights of Libya's people, but the riches of Gadhafi–who, as did Saddam, as do the Saudi royals–controls the dole on which the Libyan people, under the wretched restrictions of his police state, must depend. How, after all, does anyone think he's been getting the billions to buy his way back from terrorist pariah to international statesman?

There are role models worthy of the kind of praise just heaped on Gadhafi, though political correctness might in some cases dictate otherwise. In the Philippines, there was Ferdinand Marcos, in South Korea, Chun Doo-Hwan, in Chile, Augusto Pinochet, and in the former U.S.S.R., Mikhail Gorbachev. Without excusing their wickedness while in power, they all did the one thing that can truly begin to redeem a despot. However reluctantly, in deference to the rights and demands of their people, they resigned. Should Gadhafi decide to depart–lock, stock and regime–that may be the time to talk of courage and statesmanship. Until then, it should be quite enough to greet Gadhafi's new strategy for survival with the announcement that we do not have any immediate plans to invade.
Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears in the Opinion Journal and Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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