How to stop a tyrant without going to war

When anti-Gadhafi forces overran Tripoli last month the first foreigner to reach the headquarters of the Libyan spy agency was Peter Boukhaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

When anti-Gadhafi forces overran Tripoli last month the first foreigner to reach the headquarters of the Libyan spy agency was Peter Boukhaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. Intent on assuring the security of the files, which may be used in future prosecutions, Boukhaert and his team quickly uncovered evidence that the CIA and MI6 “rendered” terror suspects to Libya to be interrogated under torture.

By now it’s common knowledge that between September 2001 and the end of its reign, the Bush Administration practised “extraordinary rendition,” that is, kidnapping terror suspects in one country and shipping them to another, where they are tortured. The Obama administration claims to be practising Rendition Lite, in which victims may only be shipped to countries where they are wanted for crimes. It’s hard to test this claim since renditions are still conducted in secret.

Besides highlighting the criminality of British and American foreign policy, the files remind us that we’ve just recently switched sides in Libya. Only a few months ago, Moammar Gadhafi was our ally, and at least one of the leaders of the anti-Gadhafi army, Abdel-Hakim Belhaf was an Islamic extremist terror suspect with ties to al-Qaida, who was once “rendered” unto Libya. The story is all too familiar: the great powers and their satellites support an evil oppressor for years because he’s good for business, and then at some point he goes too far, and they make war on him. Thousands die. It’s interesting to ponder, how far is too far?

In 1969, Gadhafi led a violent coup against King Idris. In 1971, he suspended the Libyan constitution. In 1973 he began his “cultural revolution,” declaring “execution is the fate of anyone who forms a political party.” In 1976 he executed 25 college students for the crime of staging a peaceful protest. He instituted death squads in 1979. Skipping ahead over years of atrocities committed against his own people and terror attacks against foreigners, including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, we come to June 1996, when Gadhafi ordered the massacre at Abu Salim prison, where security forces slaughtered 1,200 inmates.

Still Gadhafi hadn’t gone too far. As recently as September 2009, the dictator was scheduled to visit St. John’s, Newfoundland, on a friendly stopover. But that August, he finally took one step too far. When Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released by a Scottish court on the grounds that he was in the last throes of a terminal illness, Gadhafi gave him a hero’s welcome back to Tripoli. Prime Minister Stephen Harper let it be known that the dictator would receive a strongly worded reprimand from foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon upon arrival in Newfoundland. Gadhafi decided to cancel.

Tyrants like Gadhafi don’t just appear on the scene fully formed. It takes nurturing to build that kind of power. Like the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Adolf Hitler before him, Gadhafi once served powerful interests, and those interests allowed him to grow so strong that it was ultimately necessary to go to war against him. Maybe it’s time to rethink the policy of backing dictators and turning a blind eye to their crimes in order to maintain “stability,” or because they keep the money flowing.

Now that Gadhafi is deposed and thousands of Libyans are dead in the process, what’s next? How much better is Saudi Arabia? Uzbekistan? How many more bloody dictators are we supplying with arms, financing with trade, and legitimizing with diplomatic ties? How soon can we expect them to go too far, to cease to be useful or profitable? How many lives will be spent getting rid of them?

Pacifism is often dismissed on the grounds that sometimes you run up against an enemy so evil that you simply must go to war. This is true only if you wait until the last moment to act. Most of the world’s tyrants could have been stopped long before it came to war. There’s a pretty simple trick for preventing a petty despot from turning into a dangerous dictator. Try cutting off his allowance.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.