Muammar Gaddafi was certainly more than prophetic during the summit of the Arab League (AL) in 2008 when he inquired about the fate of his Iraqi predecessor for Western military interventions: Saddam Hussein. "The ruler and head of an AL member has been hanged. Why?" he asked. "In the future it's going to be your turn. Even you, the friends of America," he told the Arab leaders present as the audience was rolling on the floor laughing. "Friends of America… No, I say," said Gaddafi, "We are friends of America, but America can approve of our hanging one day."
Two years later, the eccentric dictator was dragged out of a sewage channel and lynched by a mob of rebels after the regime succumbed to an alliance of domestic insurgents and NATO air strikes. In the White House, Obama hailed Gaddafi's demise, saying, "One of the world's longest-serving dictators is no more. The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted."
Well, Gaddafi might be no more, but his long shadow keeps chasing Obama and other enthusiasts of the intervention in Libya even now. When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the rationale behind the award rested in significant part on the president's commitment to nuclear disarmament, with the Nobel committee's citation hailing Obama for a "vision of a world free from nuclear arms."
Furthermore, the citation affirmed the following: "Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts."
Or as Professor Juan Cole -- the go-to Middle East "expert" for pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald -- put it: "Barack Obama was given the prize because he is a game-changer.… Two years ago we were talking about whether Cheney could convince Americans to go to war on Iran. Now Washington is engaging in direct talks with Tehran that have eased tensions."
However, when the next installment -- the Libyan civil war -- of that reality show otherwise known as the Arab Spring was hitting TV screens, NATO involvement attracted an unwanted and unintended audience: namely, North Korea and Iran.
An unnamed North Korean foreign policy official quoted by North Korea's news agency lambasted air strikes on Libya and drew a direct parallel between his country's nuclear arsenal and the ill-fated WMD program of Libya, which Gaddafi dismantled in 2003 as part of his plans to co-operate with the West. Calling the West's bargain with Gaddafi "an invasion tactic to disarm the country," the North Korean official said that the subsequent bombing of Libya by NATO forces was "teaching the international community a grave lesson," and proclaimed that a powerful military was the only means of ensuring peace in the Korean Peninsula.
More ominously for the administration, the implications of the war in Libya did not escape the attention of Iran's Supreme Leader -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader compared the West's tempting Gaddafi with diplomatic and economic incentives in 2003 in exchange for giving up his nuclear ambitions to "giving candy to a child." Khamenei said Iran was right to reject restrictions on its nuclear program, making it clear that one can fool a child with sweets, but only once. Having seen what happened to Gaddafi, Iran is not going to trade its nuclear ambitions for any "candy."
The non-proliferation connection of the war in Libya was completely missed by many analysts. The same Juan Cole endorsed the war in Libya as follows (while expressing slight reservations over the fact that Obama continued U.S. participation without authorization from Congress): "The Libya intervention, in and of itself, is therefore legal in international law in a way that the Iraq War was not. I personally believe that the UN attempt to forbid unilateral aggressive war is absolutely central to our survival on earth, and although it has had many failures, it is an ideal worth reaching for." His position on Iran remained unchanged.
In a blog post last October, Juan Cole again called for dialogue between the administration and Iran, "Obama came into office convinced that the negotiating table was the only plausible way to deal with Iran. He should go back to that."
But by now it has become abundantly clear that if a plausible way to deal with Iran exists at all, it is not the negotiating table.
Common sense suggests that a regime will only abandon a WMD program on the understanding that the other party will not subsequently try to take advantage of the degradation of the regime's deterrence capabilities.
By backing the anti-Gaddafi forces in the Libyan civil war to the point of pushing a de facto policy of regime change (and not simply "protecting civilians"), Obama broke the United States' tacit agreement with Gaddafi that had been in place since the Libyan autocrat gave up his WMD ambitions in 2003. The president has indeed become a "game-changer"… by eliminating the negotiating table from the list of options for dealing with Iran.
Gaddafi was not even the first dictator in the Middle East to be toppled after it dismantled its WMD program at the request of the West. That honor belongs to Saddam Hussein. Yet unlike Saddam, Gaddafi was never accused of failing to carry out his part of the bargain. After reaching a de facto agreement to give up his WMD program, Gaddafi joined forces with Western powers as a supposed ally against terrorism and became a regular visitor in Western capitals.
The truth is that the casus belli behind the NATO intervention in Libya was the violent crackdown on a popular uprising against Gaddafi's rule. On the other hand, violent crackdowns on popular uprisings are exactly what Iran has been very busy with in recent years. The regime crushed the Green Revolution in 2009 under heavy criticism from the same Western powers that later intervened in Libya when Gaddafi forces were on the verge of defeating the rebels. At the beginning of 2011 the regime in Tehran faced off an attempt to revive the protests.
Meanwhile, the Saudi prince stated the monarchy's position on Iran's nuclear ambitions in very clear terms at a conference in Riyadh: "If our efforts, and the efforts of the world community, fail to convince Israel to shed its weapons of mass destruction and to prevent Iran from obtaining similar weapons, we must, as a duty to our country and people, look into all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves."
The Saudi warning, while clearly being insincere as regards Israel's nuclear weapons that have existed for a few decades, leaves no doubt regarding the nasty potential for a nuclear Iran to unleash an Arab-Persian nuclear arms race in a region that is generally not known for stability or predictability.
In 2010, the United Arab Emirates' ambassador in the U.S. was even more frank. Calling Iran the only country in the region to pose a threat to the UAE, Yousef Al-Otaiba said, "We cannot live with a nuclear Iran."
Today the Obama administration is facing a dilemma undreamed of in the philosophy of Professor Cole. The manner in which the ideal of preventing unilateral aggressive wars ended with the lynching of Gaddafi has unnerved the regimes of Iran and North Korea. The chances that either country will voluntarily discontinue WMD programs or surrender existing weapons have turned from very slim to non-existent. Indeed, on what basis should they do so in light of Gaddafi's fate?
Under the present circumstances, the Obama administration may well be considering a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear installations before the regime acquires a nuclear deterrent and sends the whole region on a WMD acquisition spree. Contrary to the arguments of some pundits like Jeffrey Goldberg, a preemptive attack is the only realistic option now, if Obama's vision of a nuclear free world is to have any chance of survival in the Middle East in the near future. The regime in Tehran is not going to back off through a carrot-and-stick approach of negotiations and sanctions after what transpired in Libya.
However, such a unilateral, preemptive attack was certainly not the original intention of the Nobel committee that commended Obama's non-proliferation efforts with the Peace Prize. Nor did Juan Cole have such an outcome in mind when he was lauding the administration's "leading from behind" in Libya.
Truly one should never underestimate the shadow of a dead man: in this case, Gaddafi.