Yesterday’s news that Col. Moammar Gadhafi is dead brought jubilation across Libya and made it seem that the revolution’s success was predestined. Those old newsreels showing the celebration in Times Square on V-E day in 1945 produce the same feeling, at least for me.
But these stories of an epic struggle between good and evil nearly lost their happy endings. Victory for the good guys was never a sure thing. It just feels that way because of hindsight bias, which allows our emotions to trump reason and memory.
The revolt against Gadhafi’s madhouse police state began on Feb. 15. After some initial victories in which the rebels established their stronghold in Benghazi, Gadhafi’s forces rallied in a brutal counterattack. By late February, western leaders, including President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, called for Gadhafi’s departure. While they took the matter to the United Nations Security Council, Gadhafi’s troops pressed on.
The Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on March 18 (Libyan time), demanding a cease-fire and authorizing other nations to impose a no-fly zone and to “take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas.” The vote was 10-0, with permanent Council members Russia and China abstaining rather than using their vetoes. Also abstaining were India, Brazil and – to its shame, considering its NATO membership – Germany.
NATO forces, led by British and French air power with extensive American support in the early stages, needed another 24 hours to swing into action. By that time it was almost too late. Gadhafi troops were inside the Benghazi city limits when 19 French jets took to the skies and stopped their advance with air-to-ground fire. It was a scene straight out of a movie script, with the cavalry arriving at the last minute to rescue the damsel in distress.
History probably will record the Libyan uprising as a success for diplomacy backed by appropriate military muscle. Aided by an air umbrella and a naval blockade that ultimately encompassed 19 nations, including several Arab states, Libyans liberated themselves from a megalomaniac who subsumed their society for 41 years. It is a story of hope and courage, even though we may not know for a long time whether the Libyans can build a peaceful, prosperous and harmonious society on the ruins of the Gadhafi era.
History does not tell us much about the roads not taken. Libya’s U.N. representative, Ibrahim Dabbashi, defected and called for a no-fly zone on Feb. 21, less than a week after the uprising began. Other rebels called insistently for help in the weeks before the Security Council acted. A faster response, inside or outside the United Nations, might have meant a quicker and less bloody downfall for the regime. As it was, street demonstrations in Tripoli were put down by months of ruthless terror, the city of Misrata endured a lengthy and destructive siege, and atrocities mounted across the country. Faster action might have meant much less suffering.
On the other hand, the lengthy delay allowed the rebels to organize a government-in-waiting in the form of the National Transitional Council, so there was at least a semblance of order as greater swaths of the country passed from Gadhafi’s control. A quick ouster of the dictator might have left chaos in its wake. We will never know.
We tend to look back on historical events as though things could not have ended differently, but that is seldom the case. Strategic errors by Confederate generals helped Union troops win the Battle of Gettysburg at a point when Northern enthusiasm for the war was flagging. Had the battle gone the other way, the Civil War might have ended differently.
Likewise, Adolf Hitler chose to break his nonaggression pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union in June 1941, before he had dealt with Great Britain on his western front. The British held on through the punishing Blitz, the Russians and their winter weather decimated Hitler’s army, and the Japanese pushed America into the war by attacking Pearl Harbor. Though many setbacks lay ahead, the circumstances that produced eventual Allied victory were in place by early 1942 – but only thanks to a series of missteps by the opposition.
D-Day could not have been launched without British bases. A Nazi triumph in Europe might have allowed Germany to help Japan with troops, supplies and science – rockets, certainly, and maybe atomic weapons. Victory in World War II was a much closer call than we tend to realize when we look back at those happy newsreels.
We can still celebrate triumphs over evil. Perseverance and sacrifice are often rewarded – but not necessarily quickly, and not necessarily all the time. There is a greater element of chance than we often recognize. I believe in leaving as little to chance as possible.