Libya: For U.S., Yesterday's 'Extremists' Are Today's Freedom Fighters

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty
Libyan freedom fighters gather in the center of Benghazi, Libya, March 18, 2011.
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There's no small irony in the fact that the U.S. is now leading the international cavalry to rescue Libyan freedom fighters in Benghazi. In recent years, official U.S. policy was to bolster Qaddafi's authoritarian regime — "a strong partner in the war against terrorism" — in its crackdowns on these "extremists" in eastern Libya, who were seen as a threat to U.S. interests in Iraq.

A WikiLeak-ed State Department cable from 2008 praises the Libyan regime for "awakening" to the "real problem with extremism in the east" and its ongoing "efforts to counter the threat." While the U.S. considered a "soft power" intervention in places like Benghazi, Qaddafi's men discouraged such an approach, maintaining that the regime could "blunt the threat through 'traditional, quiet' channels (i.e., through its security apparatus.)"

But in a separate cable, the U.S. embassy in Tripoli fretted that the even the brutality of Qaddafi's thugs wasn't sufficient to quell the threat: "...despite GOL [Government of Libya] security organizations' efforts... claims by senior GOL officials that the east is under control may be overstated."

In the New York Times, Obama's former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair offers a belated mea culpa for collaborating with Qaddafi and other regional strongmen:

“Not only did these intelligence relationships interfere with our ability to understand opposition forces, but in the eyes of the citizens of those countries they often identified the United States with the tools of oppression,” said Mr. Blair, who served until last May as President Obama’s director of national intelligence. He added that the recent uprisings offer an opportunity to “align our intelligence relationships with our national values.”