A lunatic can still be a menace

Although I regret the loss of innocent life and fear the outcome, I derive grim satisfaction from the impending demise of Moammar Gadhafi. And the pointed lessons it teaches.

First, it was highly instructive to watch the rambling, disastrous speech by Gadhafi's son Saif alIslam last Sunday. I mean watch literally; I speak no Arabic. And yet it was plain that here was a man -hailed last year by Landon Thomas Jr. in The New York Times as "the Western-friendly face of Libya and symbol of its hopes for reform and openness" and praised by the U.S. State Department as recently as Sunday -who had never heard an honest disagreement in his life.

Forced to attempt to speak frankly to his people in a crisis, he was catastrophically ill-equipped for the task, alternately threatening and patronizing and above all plainly bored at having to waste so much of his evening talking down to ungrateful morons.

At that moment we suddenly saw a great weakness of all tyrannies.

Censorship deprives them not only of factual knowledge about their own country and the world but, more importantly, of the vital self-discipline that comes from having always to think hard about what you're doing. When the need arises, they're lost.

Second, Gadhafi's entire 41-year reign, including that weird diatribe on Tuesday, proves that you can be at once ludicrous and sinister. Because the Libyan strongman was frequently perplexingly absurd, a lot of people somehow concluded, despite all the evidence, that he could not be a menace to his own people and ours. The real lesson was the exact opposite: Tyrants whose goals seem different from our own really think very differently from us, and their weird rhetoric and antics resonate with their intended target audience because political culture outside the West is deeply different from ours.

Some people have taken exception to my pessimism about Middle Eastern political culture. I assure you I would like to be wrong, especially given the courage protesters have lately shown in a number of countries.

But I will not pretend things are otherwise than they are just to seem polite. Refusal to face reality squarely is not merely undignified but dangerous, especially in international affairs.

That brings me to a third, related lesson about how, with Gadhafi's loathsome regime unexpectedly tottering on the brink of destruction, so many idealists have suddenly found their moral and even physical courage. Where have all these people been all these years, and why? For instance former prime minister Paul Martin who now wants the United Nations to intervene in Libya; I don't recall him try-ing to organize such an expedition when he was in power. Was the Libyan government any less horrible back then? Or did it just look stronger?

Where were all the students busy with Israeli apartheid week when it came time to denounce Libya? Sure, the regime is now shooting protesters. But Gadhafi has been repressing his own people, meddling violently in neighbouring countries and subsidizing terror for four decades and I don't recall anyone seeking a boycott of Libyan oil.

Realpolitikers have supposedly pragmatic reasons for taking this approach, albeit ones rarely greeted sympathetically on the Left. But where have the idealists been on Libya? Other than insisting that mankind places its hopes in the UN, on whose supposedly new improved Human Rights Council Gadhafi won a seat in 2010. Why have they been so critical of democracies and so mute on tyrannies?

If pressed, some of them might force out a pro forma denunciation of Libya and its ilk although you couldn't even count on that. But you could count on their very quickly getting back to slagging Israel, capitalism, Israel, U.S. imperialism and especially Israel.

Of course it is possible to reply that because Israel is, like Canada, a democracy in the rule-of-law sense we not only can but should hold it to higher standards. And I grant that it would be more than a little ludicrous to quibble over minor lapses of due process in a murderous tyranny actively sponsoring terror abroad, from Libya or Iran to the old Soviet Union and on. But the weird thing is that so many people who begin by making that argument rapidly move to asserting moral equivalence between the West and its sworn enemies and from there slide into depicting us as worse.

This attitude bears a disconcerting resemblance to a death wish. If you suffer such a thing in your personal life you have my sympathies. But if you reliably bring it into defence and security policy where it puts me and my country at risk, my attitude hardens fast. You were no help when it took real courage and you're no help now.

None of this amounts exactly to enjoying the bloody drama now lurching toward a worrying conclusion. But it brings a certain grim satisfaction . and I'll take it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson