The world had good cause to celebrate the death of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi last month – especially the Libyans who suffered under his oppressive rule for more than 40 years and the families of the 270 victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which Gadhafi’s henchmen brought down with a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, a few days before Christmas. Certainly, no one should lament having one less thug dictator among us.
But while the world may be a better place without Gadhafi, it may not be a safer place. In fact, it may have gotten more dangerous.
To begin, the Gadhafi regime – however ugly and offensive – did not represent a direct military threat to the United States, nor was it still a terrorist threat. In fact, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the United States, Gadhafi engaged in a policy of rapprochement with the West, accepting Libyan responsibility for the Pan Am bombing, agreeing to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the victims’ relatives, and abrogating his weapons of mass destruction programs and WMD arsenal.
More important, perhaps, the Libyan regime was not among al-Qaida’s supporters. So toppling Gadhafi was unnecessary for U.S. national security – just like Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Whether the new Libyan government will be friendlier toward the United States, or anti-American, remains to be seen. Only time will tell – just as in Iraq. But even in the unlikely event of a happily-ever-after fairy tale ending in Libya, supporting the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi could come back to haunt us.
One of the unintended consequences of toppling the Libyan regime is that an unknown number of an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles (Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS) stockpiled by the Libyan military have gone missing. These are the same type of missiles the U.S. government supplied to the “mujahedeen” in Afghanistan to shoot down Soviet helicopters during the Soviet Union’s 1979-1988 occupation of that country.
While we understandably fret about weapons of mass destruction, it’s important to remember that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons rarely have been used, while portable missiles like the missing MANPADS have been used to bring down at least 30 civilian aircraft since 1973, killing 920 civilians.
In 1979, an Air Rhodesia plane was downed, killing all 59 people aboard; in 1983, a guerrilla group claimed responsibility for shooting down a Boeing 737 flown by Angolan Airways, killing 130 people; and in 1986, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army shot down a Sudan Airways passenger plane, killing 60 people.Although the loss of life from a single MANPADS attack would be considerably less than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (several hundred at most, rather than several thousand), the terror spread by such an attack could be just as profound.
Even an unsuccessful terrorist attack against a U.S. commercial aircraft would have a chilling effect on air travel. Imagine trying to convince the public that it’s safe to fly, especially when no U.S. commercial passenger aircraft are equipped with countermeasures to defend against MANPADS. The panic would ripple throughout the economy.
So while there may be one less dictator in the world to worry about, Gadhafi’s ouster and death have created a vacuum that increases the terrorist threat.
Many of those 20,000 MANPADS missiles are unaccounted for. Let’s hope they haven’t fallen into the wrong hands.
Meanwhile, the lesson for us all: Be careful what you wish for.
This article appeared in The Sacramento Bee, MCClatchy-Tribune News Service, The Oregonian and is reprinted with permission.