Colonel Qaddafi is dead, and he was apparently killed by Libyan liberation forces although there is a slight chance that the actual death-weapon was another truly decisive contribution of NATO in the war against the more-than-mad dictator. If this hypothesis gains currency, watch for the clamor of complaint from the Russians, the Chinese, the Cubans, the Venezuelans, and a bunch of African states that were on the tyrant’s payroll that justice has been pre-empted by the trigger-happy Western Europeans. It was not quite like the execution of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci, along with a dozen other degraded fascists, on April 28, 1945, on their way in a German formation to neutral Switzerland. Imagine an international legal tribunal with the Italian buffoon in the dock. Imagine also Qaddafi in a similar situation. From my point of view, justice has already been done. Or would you prefer a United Nations judicial proceeding like the one under which Kaing Guek Eav (“Dutch” for short) was charged with genocide for the deaths of 12,380 Cambodians in Tuol Sleng prison and the killing fields of Choeung Ek? If your brain needs a little bit of renewal or you are too young to recall (which at least half of you are), read Ian MacKinnon’s exemplary Guardian story on “ultra-Maoist” justice 30 years before being examined under the lights of a foreign court. I don’t know why MacKinnon adds the “ultra” to Maoist. Perhaps to maintain the illusion that non-ultra Maoist justice was actually somewhat just.
The Libyan revolution capsulized the various aspirations of the Arab revolt. And we have yet to see which factions will be strong enough to join in the political battles—and perhaps also in the other not-so-peaceful battles—that lie ahead. The madness of the tyrant left the ethnic, tribal, social, and religious flanks in Libya tilting for years in the miasmic sewers of the country. Qaddafi defined the issues. But his definitions which set the boundaries were simply nuts. In the context of the expectation of the fall of the colonel and the fall of his brutal sons, the last months constituted the first period in four decades when realistic alternatives could be put on the table. But these alternatives, excepting a few liberal streams or dreams, are themselves backwards, frankly backwards, although one cannot help sympathizing with, for example, the long-suppressed Berbers who may turn out to be the Kurds of the Maghreb. Narrow in scope, however, certainly not especially ideologically aspirational, the competition in Libya will not truly inspire. Still, with the transubstantiation of a truly rotten soul, Qaddafi’s descent into Dante’s caverns of hell should give Libya breathing room for a somewhat more open politics which it and its neighbors have not had ever.
The intercessions by NATO’s main European powers in this civil war should also tilt Libyan politics in a slightly more liberal direction. But let’s not miss the obvious truth. What Italy, France, Great Britain, and our own country are interested in fundamentally is Libyan oil. The ex-imperial powers are clearly hoping for a humane and representative polity that will be more open to market trade than the vagaries of authoritarianism and pan-Arabism.
Which is why Libya was the easiest of interventions. In the end, Qaddafi was just an armed screwball with gunmen. Okay, a very well-armed screwball.
This is not the case with Syria, which the Assad family has so divvied-up over four decades that historical structural divisions have intensified among the population. Given the bitterness and the bloodiness of the present armed warfare, the stakes for everyone are higher and deeper. Of course, since Syria—like most Arab societies—is also not a nation-state, its military and police authorities are organized to keep the country stratified, mostly according to sect and tribe. Yes, it is a state that hates. But I am not sure if its hatred for Israel is greater than its hatred for itself and its various components, with a 10 percent minority of Alawites at the top and a plurality of Sunnis near the bottom, and among the others a variety of Christians, Kurds, Druze, Turkmen, Circassians, plus perhaps half a dozen Jews, the tiny remnant of 3,000 noble years in the geography that is now ruled by Damascus.
When we look back—after Assad has decidedly won or has decidedly lost—we will be able to appreciate the disaster of having the United States court Damascus by pushing Israel to make concrete geographical concessions to the dictator. Imagine if the Jewish state had given up the Golan Heights or parts of it to the Assad family. But Israel is not by any means the whole of the stakes. There is also Lebanon and Syrian-allied Hezbollah, a fair representation of the Shia majority or near majority. Then, too, the Sunnis, as well as the frightened-out-of-their-wits Christians, some playing the Shia card against the Sunnis, others playing the Sunni card against the Shia. And the helpless Palestinians, 300,000 of them, without work and without citizenship, living in Lebanon since the 1948 war which they started and which they lost, who will never be “returned” and whose stay will remain miserable. Believe me, the Palestinian Authority may want Israel to repatriate their own Palestinians. But it won’t make a move, not even to state its intention to take these so-called refugees of 1948—are there 5,000 of them still alive?—into Area A of the West Bank, over which the P.A. has plenary authority.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.