Charles Krauthammer On Gaddafi’s Execution: Preference For ‘Cosmic Justice’ – Analysis


By Preeti Nalwa

In Charles Krauthammer’s analysis regarding Gaddafi’s death in National Post in the commentary titled “Gaddafi’s death should serve as warning to other dictators”1, two of his comments deserve attention and demands some response if not a riposte.

At one place Krauthammer’s moralistic approach betrays ramblings of a religious discourse rather than serious acumen in expounding IR realisms as he often does with an effortless expertise, when he says that “In a world of perfect justice, this Caligula should have suffered far more, far longer. He inflicted unimaginable suffering upon thousands. What did he suffer? Perhaps an hour of torment and a shot through the head. By any standard of cosmic justice, that’s mercy” Justice in IR theory or practice is more about the principles of international law, their effective application and implementation, and only by doing so, do they appropriate legitimacy and acceptance. The establishment of institutions of international law has consumed much thought, deliberation, exertions, foresight, substantial financial resources and pooling of legal talent. Short-cutting such procedure in the name of poetic justice is to not only to render these institutions irrelevant but also expose a hint of irreverence to legal processes. In Gaddafi’s brutal execution, preference of poetic/cosmic justice as a short-cut to redeeming righteousness is to bring back the medieval laws of retribution, revenge, witch-burning and crucifixion. Are we ready to accept such recourse in 21st century?

Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi
Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi

Krauthammer’s second comment demands little bit more explanation. His second comment spells out excruciating limited options for vicious dictators when he says that “Moreover, Gaddafi’s sorry end has one major virtue: deterrence. You are a murderous dictator with a rebellion on your hands. You have a choice. Relinquish power and spare your country further agony, and you can then live out your days like Amin — or like a more contemporary Saudi guest, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Otherwise, you die like Gaddafi, dragged from a stinking sewer pipe, abused, taunted and shot”. His argument firstly, sounds almost like an apology for the complicity of NATO and NTC in Gaddafi’s death. Gaddafi was reportedly injured by a NATO aircraft strike on his escaping convoy in the vicinity of Sirte. In a statement released by NATO, it acknowledged that the NATO aircraft targeted the convoy of approximately 75 vehicles and successfully struck 11 pro-Gaddafi military vehicles and that “the strike likely contributed to his capture”. Instituting investigation after murder expediently compliments “regime change”.

Secondly, Krauthammer’s argument of this kind of deterrence is not much of a choice to ruthless dictators and unfortunately, dispels the policy of engagement and socialization. It dissipates the notion of the third pillar of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’2 entirely under whose mandate the mission of “humanitarian intervention” was launched in Libya. The third pillar states the international community’s commitment as “The responsibility of UN Member States to respond in a timely and decisive manner, using, as appropriate and as decided on a case-by-case basis, peaceful, diplomatic and humanitarian measures as well as Chapters VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes), VII (Action with Respect to the Threats to the Peace), and VIII (Regional Arrangements) of the UN Charter, when a state is “manifestly failing” to provide such protection.

The Secretary‐General has emphasized prevention before intervention and has maintained that RtoP involves the duty of the international community to assist the state with its consent for achieving this aim. It undoubtedly involves a diplomatic thrust or a diplomatic offensive and this was not entirely implausible. On one previous occasion, Gaddafi had shown verifiable plausibility of undisputed socialization. Gaddafi gave up nuclear weapons. But for Gaddafi, the payoffs for abandoning the nuclear weapons had remained limited and probably, in retrospect, the major cause of his undoing. Only few conventional weapons systems were provided to Gaddafi and the promised civilian nuclear technology was never delivered to Libya. Abdelrahman Shalgham, the Libyan ambassador to the UN, had voiced his discontent by saying that “We gave some devices, some centrifuges,…for America, but what do you give us? Nothing …that’s why we think North Korea and Iran are hesitating now to have a breakthrough regarding their projects.”1 Gaddafi had in fact complained on April 26, 2010 that the Obama administration had not invited him to the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington on April 12-13, 2010. He said that this snub would mar efforts to persuade Iran or North Korea to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

In his obsession with building a cult around himself, proselytizing his “third universal theory” compiled in the so-called Green Book that claimed to usher in an era of mass democracy wherein people would directly rule themselves in a utopia called the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Gaddafi gravely suffered the IR amnesia of the actual ‘deterrence’ theory. Gaddafi forgot the logic of MAD of nuclear weapons that made war impossible. Kenneth Waltz, the distinguished neorealist scholar has propounded the theory that “more is better” and that the spread of nuclear weapons “makes war less likely.”2 His argument rests on the theory of deterrence and the fear of MAD which enabled the so called “long peace” during the Cold War. By giving up nuclear weapons, Gaddafi literally nvited war to his doorsteps. Gaddafi’s brutal end will unmistakably be an eye-opener for those contemplating any compromise with their critical defensive/offensive posture. The most likely candidate is North Korea with whom the US had reopened bilateral talks which took place in Geneva on October 26, 2011 replacing “strategic patience” with “management strategy” in order to induce North Korea to give up nuclear weapons adhering to Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible, and Denuclearization (CVID).

If dictators like Kim Jong-Il of North Korea were to learn any lesson from Gaddafi’s brutal end, it would be to keep its nuclear deterrent intact. Keeping in mind, Gaddafi’s vulnerability, Kim Jong-Il is unlikely to forget the logic of deterrent theory and unlikely to give up nuclear weapons like Gaddafi did. North Korea being strategically important has been able to win the support of China and Russia. But unfortunately, for Gaddafi, in the context of the weak geo-political importance of Libya, any worthwhile military partnerships either with China or Russia remained absent, maybe also because Gaddafi forgot that while making amends with your enemies, one has to make friends with the enemy of your enemy too. Consequently, Gaddafi was a sitting duck for the US centered anti-Gaddafi alliance to ‘give teeth’ to the notion of ‘humanitarian intervention’. The mission Libya also discreetly signals to China the US-NATO military solidarity, their reach and projection of military power at a time when China is flexing muscles on the South China Sea issue. China must have warily watched the resolve of the alliance partners in achieving their proclaimed aim of regime change, and provoked China enough to re-think and re-assess its strengths in countering a situation when it would have to thwart any likely intentions of regime change in North Korea. Such a situation would entail similar consequences of humanitarian crisis on its borders, forcing North Koreans to flee towards neighbouring China, creating the problems of absorbing refugees and problems relating to their survival as are being faced in Libya and its neighbouring regions, especially Niger, Egypt and Tunisia.

The notion of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is highly charged with an overriding moralistic tone. Its idea is to save civilians from becoming the victims of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity, and not to engineer revolutions. The logic of ‘humanitarian intervention’ would like us to believe that the Libyans deserved the US-NATO military intrusion to deliver them from the plight of their reality under Gaddafi. But the ends can never mirror the proclaimed goals when the political expediency assumes overriding significance, paling the moral quotient into oblivion. The mettle of real revolution is different, real revolutions are earned and not transacted at the behest of foreign wheedling. The tragedy of Libyan crisis was that it never began as a revolution. The civilian protests could have turned into a revolution but its promise got scuttled within its inception itself even before it could develop either a vision or even a slight semblance to the stuff revolutions are made of.

The US-NATO intervention in alliance with the undemocratic TNC has unleashed ethical violence in the name of humanitarian intervention and now, the interim Libyan government under Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), has unleashed more violence in the name of establishing democracy. The US-NATO intervention in Libya cries out for answering a critical question—should an intervention be a solution to the larger malaise or be instead a trigger for wide-scale unprecedented chaos, disruptiveness and intractability in civilian and political life? Mustafa Abdul-Jalil has already declared that Libyan laws in future would have Sharia, the Islamic code, as its “basic source”. His radical plans to immediately lift, by decree, the ban on polygamy. These declarations, made in advance of introducing any democratic process, are worrying the many young liberal Libyans and especially women who have played a strong and a supporting role in opposition to Gaddafi’s rule. To their dismay, the Western coalition under the leadership of the US has reinstated religious extremists. They have done it without learning any lesson from Afghanistan when the US initially supported the Taliban to oust the Soviets.

Probably, the West does not care since acting as rational actors they have made their gains but at a tremendous cost to the Libyan people. In their struggle to return to normalcy, the Libyans would not even realize that they were actually made the scapegoats when the US with its Western coalition partners undertook the ‘mission Libya’. If the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is of any import, then the event Libya is a lost horizon for years to come.

Preeti Nalwa

Ph.D Scholar
Department of East Asian Studies
University of Delhi

1. Available at
2. The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (RtoP) was unanimously adopted as a key principle of international affairs by UN Member States at the 2005 World Summit. The UN General Assembly Member States embraced RtoP in paragraphs 138 to 140 of the Outcome Document of the 2005 World Summit. The notion of RtoP was reaffirmed unanimously by the UN Security Council by virtue of Resolution 1674 on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict passed in 2006. For details refer to
3. Michael Slackman (2009). “5 Years After It Halted Weapons Programmes, Libya Sees the U.S. as Ungrateful.” The New York Times, March 10, 2009.
4. Kenneth Waltz (1995). The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate. New York: Norton.

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