Macbeth knew what would be coming to him once his domestic enemies had the upper hand. He decided to go down fighting.
I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.
The Roman dictator Sejanus was not given that opportunity. Sejanus had taken power in Rome when Tiberius, the official emperor, decided that playing with his tiddlers in Capri was more fun than ruling. Sejanus overreached, Tiberius sent a letter to the Senate, and Ben Jonson tells the rest:
Sentence by the senate,
To lose his head; which was no sooner off,
But that and the unfortunate trunk were seized
By the rude multitude; who not content
With what the forward justice of the state
Officiously had done, with violent rage
Have rent it limb from limb.…
These mounting at his head, these at his face,
These digging out his eyes, those with his brains
Sprinkling themselves, their houses and their friends;
Others are met, have ravish’d thence an arm,
And deal small pieces of the flesh for favours;
These with a thigh, this hath cut off his hands,
And this his feet; these fingers and these toes;
That hath his liver, he his heart.…
Muammar Gaddafi was not dealt with quite as sternly as that, though we have learned that among other indignities, he was sodomized with either a stick or a knife following his capture last Thursday. (I can hear a thousand comedians in the lower kind of British clubs saying, “I’ll be buggered if I’ll let them make me president of Libya!”)
On a straightforward individual calculus of harm done versus harm received, Gaddafi got off lightly. The number of people who have died screaming in pain on his explicit instructions has at least four digits and very likely five. That’s busy work in a nation of six and a half million, even when spread over forty-two years. A beating, a humiliation, a baiting with the rabble’s curse, and an uninvited stick up the poop chute are nothing by comparison.
I have been shocked by the reaction from some of my conservative friends. They are exultant. Gaddafi, they are telling me, was a very bad man. That is true. The world, they are telling me, is well rid of him. That may be true, if what follows Gaddafi is an improvement, but this is still uncertain. How, they are asking me, could I have wished for the continued rule of a man with so much blood on his hands?
That last one’s easy: If Gaddafi showed decent respect for US national interests, I couldn’t care less if he took his morning shower in the blood of virgins he had slaughtered for the purpose. Foreign-policy-wise, I am out at the far realist end of the moralist-realist spectrum—a Disraeli among Gladstones.
For the past few years, Gaddafi had been making nice with the civilized world: scrapping his WMD programs, paying compensation to the American and European victims of his earlier atrocities, and helping stem the flood of sub-Saharan African migrants across the Mediterranean into Europe. At least one Western leader expressed appreciation, as well as deep regret at NATO’s attacks on Gaddafi’s forces:
[Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi said in a speech to supporters in September that [sic] had felt “very bad” about switching sides in April and joining the NATO campaign to oust his old friend from power. He said he had even considered resigning over the issue.
Berlusconi was the only one of our leaders to show even that residual amount of honor in the matter. Just look at the revolting old harpy currently in charge of US foreign policy cackling over Gaddafi’s downfall. Lucky for him she wasn’t on the spot in Sirte on Thursday: She’d have come back with his liver and brandished it for the CBS News cameras.
So that was Gaddafi’s reward for playing nice with us this past few years—with Tony Blair, with Condoleezza Rice, with Barack Obama, with John McCain, with Gerhard Schröder, with the Windsors, with Nicolas Sarkozy, with…hey, do your own Google Images search.
Statecraft is a rough old business, but soothing the barbarians is a big part of it. A barbarian chieftain who has agreed to be soothed should be accorded some respect. If his own people turn against him, we are not obliged to help him unless his opposition is very plainly worse; but we might at least stand aside silently and let events take their course.
To openly gloat and cackle at the news of our soothed chieftain being abused at both ends, then dispatched by a ululating mob of savages, is coarse and ignoble beyond my understanding. Did John Foster Dulles dance a jig on prime-time TV when he heard the news of Stalin’s death? Of course not. People knew how to behave back then.
We treated Muammar Gaddafi shamefully—just as, come to think of it, we treated his predecessor. It’s a hazardous and unrewarding business, being a friend of the West.
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