August 24, 2011

Rushing past the obvious is an occupational hazard for journalists and policymakers. Much of the official and media verbiage triggered by the rebels’ capture of Moammar Gaddafi’s Tripoli headquarters has missed essential contemporary and historical developments:

●Gaddafi’s downfall brings us closer to closing a dark chapter in Arab history — an era when dictators spent their vast oil revenue to finance international terrorism against the West as well as to suppress their own people. OPEC’s oil price revolution in 1973 started that era, which began to end with the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is next in history’s sights. The ruling minority Alawite clan has used protection money muscled out of the Saudis and other Gulf Arab oil producers — and lavish payoffs from Iran’s regime — to give cash and arms to the killers of U.S. Marines, a former Lebanese prime minister and many others.

●We refer to NATO warplanes playing a crucial role in the rebel campaign when we actually mean French warplanes. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has borne the brunt of NATO’s third successful direct use of force to protect civilian populations. Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 were the precedents that were worth repeating in Libya.

This turns alliance history on its head. France has traditionally distrusted the U.S.-dominated command structure of NATO and sought to avoid using it or to differentiate any French role in alliance operations. If the Obama administration follows the logic of its Libya policy, leading from behind should bring a redistribution of responsibility and authority within NATO.

●Sarkozy is the big winner in the international political sweepstakes surrounding the Libyan campaign. With his standing at home at an all-time low in the spring, he gambled by sending French planes on the first raid into Libya before he had U.S. or alliance approval. Rebel success should enable him in his reelection bid next year to recast his actions as decisive and courageous rather than rash and impulsive. And French companies are likely to benefit in a new Libya oil rush.

●The biggest loser — beside Gaddafi and his soul mates, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — may well be Angela Merkel of Germany. She looks timid and vacillating beside Sarkozy, on Libya as well as on the European debt crisis.

That result could be ephemeral. But Merkel’s determined effort to dissociate Germany from any alliance role in Libya meant that the European Union lost a historic opportunity to create a leadership role for itself on a foreign-policy crisis that was strategic for Europe. France and Britain had to work within NATO, not the E.U., when their forces went into harm’s way.

As The Post’s Middle East correspondent in the early 1970s, I watched the rise of oil-financed terrorism regionally and globally. It continues, of course, as Iran and Gulf Arabs put resources into terror campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

But the fates of the two linchpins of the Arab terror-for-profit system — Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein — should suggest to Arab leaders that terrorism not only does not pay but will eventually help destroy its perpetrators.

Most Palestinian groups abandoned international terrorism in the 1980s after they concluded that it had not worked and had in fact turned the West against their cause, George Habash, the late Palestinian terrorist leader, told me in Damascus in 1987.

It is a promising sign that two Gulf Arab states — the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — used their oil revenue to participate actively with NATO in the military campaign against Gaddafi.

They had their own reasons for opposing a leader who hired Carlos the Jackal and others to kidnap or assassinate Arab royals. But the Emirati and Qatari actions open the way to greater cooperation with NATO on other security problems, and to the refashioning of an Arab ethos on accountability and violence at home and abroad.

Just as there was no template for the Libyan revolution, the overthrow of Gaddafi will not provide a model for what happens next in Syria or Yemen. France and Britain will not be up for a repeat of their stretched-thin performance. It will be up to Syrians to settle their quarrel with Assad.

The European military performance in Libya has been used by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others as yet another occasion for “feckless European” bashing. How disappointing and shortsighted. We must not rush past this opportunity to recognize success, even as it revealed shortcomings, and to encourage Europe to take on more responsibility (and burden-sharing) in an alliance the United States still needs.

The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is jimhoagland@washpost.com.