Qaddafi and Aristide: Dumped by a Fickle America

They were once considered friends of the U.S. Now we're trying to topple one as we shun the other.

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Muammar Qaddafi and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Getty Images)

The United States plunged into its third Middle East conflict Saturday, launching missile strikes against Muammar Qaddafi's armed forces in Libya even as our leaders denied that we were going to war. With the approval of the Arab League and the U.N. Security Council in hand, the U.S. took its first active step in what it surely hopes -- despite the official denials -- will be the end of the 42-year reign of Africa's most erratic leader.

Halfway around the world in Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide came home to an enthusiastic welcome from his followers and cold silence from his enemies. The former Haitian president, who had spent the last seven years in South Africa, landed in Port-Au-Prince Friday after President Obama personally failed to convince South African President Jacob Zuma to delay Aristide's return until after the second round of Haitian elections that began Sunday.

Aristide could tell Qaddafi about the perils of having the U.S. fall out of "like" with you. Both men were once viewed as American allies, but now both are cast as enemies of democracy by Washington. They symbolize the hypocrisy in our foreign policy -- and one reason it is so difficult for the Obama administration, and previous U.S. administrations, to convince people around the world that America's intentions are as pure and simple as we would like them to believe.

In 1994 President Bill Clinton used our military might to restore Aristide to power, three years after the winner of what was arguably the most democratic election in Haiti's history had been ousted in a military coup. In 2004, during his second term in office, Aristide again boarded a plane provided by the U.S., this time for a hurried exit as a rebel force of murky origins advanced toward Port-au-Prince.

He now says he was kidnapped and forced into exile by the Bush administration. His return on Friday, and the outpouring of support from thousands of supporters, showed that despite his years in South Africa, Aristide remains a potent and polarizing force in Haitian politics.

Until a few weeks ago, Qaddafi was a close ally in the war on terror, reportedly helping Western nations attack and destroy Islamic terror networks in Africa and Europe. This relationship was fairly new, the aftermath of Qaddafi's remarkable public abandonment of his sponsorship of insurgent groups and terrorist acts, such as the Pan Am 103 plane crash.

Qaddafi had decided to go straight, it seemed, paying reparations to the Lockerbie victims and abandoning plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction. For several years now, American officials have praised the unpredictable Libyan leader as an important partner in the war on terror.

But that budding relationship was upset by the wave of democracy sweeping the Arab world. The yearning for real participation in governance put all of our friendly dictators in an uncomfortable light. While the ouster of Tunisia's president was not significant to American interests, Hosni Mubarak's fall in strategically important Egypt exposed American double-talk about democracy against the backdrop of our obsession with al-Qaida.

American leaders may have preached democracy's importance, but our reluctance to abandon a close ally in Egypt and our waffling on the challenges to authoritarian governments in Yemen and Bahrain have left our foreign policy contradictions -- and our support for dictators -- fully exposed and fully exploitable by al-Qaida and other enemies of the United States.

We did not suddenly discover that Qaddafi was a ruthless leader, willing to use brute force against his own citizens to retain power and appealing to other Arabs to join him in fighting the "crusaders." For four decades he used raw power and a cult of personality to retain control of Libya.