Why is everyone acting so shocked about Muammar Qaddafi’s crackdown?

When Casablanca’s corrupt police captain Louis Renault closes down Rick’s Bar Américain to please Major Strasser, he huffs: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” A second later, the croupier hands him a pile of money: “Your winnings, sir.” It took the West and the Rest 42 years to be shocked by what has been happening in Muammar’s Café Libyien. And it wasn’t gambling.

Now, it’s no more U.N. Human Rights Council for Qaddafi. Now, the International Criminal Court is investigating. Now, the E.U. is cutting off arms supplies and freezing bank accounts. Even the supple Swiss are getting religion, sequestering funds thought to belong Gaddafi and relatives. The U.N. Security Council, no assembly of choirboys, suddenly performs as the world’s conscience. It has imposed an asset freeze and a travel ban on the Qaddafi clan. Foreign ministers vie with one another in the shrillness of their indictment of a tyrant variously called “mass murderer,” “state terrorist,” or “psychopath.” “Outraged,” President Obama demands, “He must leave.” The U.S. and Britain are mulling “no-fly zones” to pin Qaddafi’s air force to the ground.

There is no reason to be “shocked, shocked.” Everybody—and that goes for the West as well as for Arabs, African, and Asians—has been able to see all along what’s been happening in Libya. But the Human Rights Council did not seem notice—perhaps because it was too busy passing 32 resolutions against Israel since its creation in 2006, almost half of the total it’s issued. The Council must have acted in a fit of dizziness when it elected Libya as a member.

The African Union—with around 50 members, depending on who is suspended when—anointed Qaddafi as chairman in 2009. This was the same Qaddafi who attacked Egypt in 1977 to demonstrate his displeasure with Cairo’s shift toward peace with Israel, and who invaded Chad in 1978 for a bit of territorial enlargement. In the 1980s, Qaddafi never met a terror outfit he didn’t like, supporting each and all with cash and arms—all the way to Ireland and the Philippines. He graduated from paymaster to puppet master with the PanAm 103 bombing over Lockerbie. Though he never assumed responsibility, Libya did offer to pay $2.7 billion in 2002 as compensation to the families of the 270 victims. Compared to this blood orgy, you might call the three American soldiers killed in a terror attack on West Berlin’s La Belle disco in 1986 an act of restraint.

And yet. The only time shock led to counter-shock was when Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli in 1986. The attack unleashed an uproar in Europe; this was worse than the slaughter of Libyan civilians, it was neo-imperialism! Four years earlier, a delegation of German Greens—idealists and pacifists all—had come to Tripoli to pay their respects to “Brother Leader.”

Yes, there were also economic sanctions, such as America’s Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. But it didn’t keep American, let alone French and Italian, oil companies from doing business with Libya. There was simply too much cash in the country, such as a sovereign wealth fund worth $ 70 billion. Formalized in 2007, the fund, reports The New York Times,drew into its “orbit” the Great and the Good, “including the Rothschild family, Prince Andrew, the former European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson, the cream of corporate society in Italy” as well as a couple of big-time U.S. investors.

In 2009, while Qaddafi was in Rome, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi praised him as “man of deep wisdom.” In 2007, French President Sarkozy’s “good friend” got to pitch his tent in the middle of Paris, presumably rent-free. But never mind. The visit brought in a deal worth 10 billion euros for a little nuclear reactor here, 14 Rafale combat planes there.

And now, he is our friend no more. “Treason,” the cynic Talleyrand pontificated, “is a matter of date.” “Unfriending,” too, we might add. Apropos of date: Britain and the U.S. came down really hard on Qaddafi in 2003, right after spectacular victory in Iraq. A few weeks later, Qaddafi came clean on his nukes, promising to scrap whatever he had and opening his country to inspections. The moral of this tale is that power talks. When there is the demonstrated will to use it, even the worst tyrants start purring.

Yet nobody told Qaddafi to stop being Qaddafi: an oppressor of his own people who would have made NKVD/KGB and the Gestapo proud. How is 2011 different from the 41 years before? The current mayhem does not bespeak a new quality; it is just more visible. So why the new outrage? Talleyrand might have mused: “Never go after tyrants before they falter, but hit them hard when they can’t hit back.” In German: Realpolitik beats idealpolitik; power and interest matter more than decency.

As we can see now, however, an excess of self-interest always begets an excess of self-righteousness. Unfortunately, to indulge in piety afterward is always easier than to walk that fine line between justice and expediency beforehand—in human affairs as well as in the life of nations. Nor will this ever end. Only in the movies do flawed heroes like Rick and Louis dispatch Major Strasser and go on to join the Free French Forces in Brazzaville.

Josef Joffe is the editor of Die Zeit, a senior fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, and an Abramowitz Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.