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.

Muammar Qaddafi and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Getty Images)

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.

In addition to funding Islamic terrorists, he instigated and funded some of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa while casting himself as an African leader. In the New York Times last week, Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official, defended America’s dealings with people like Qaddafi. “Foreign policy and intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with values,” he explained. “It has to do with material interests and security. We would be blind in most of the world if we only dealt with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

It was an unusually frank admission of what superpowers are willing to do to look after their own interests. Now that having Qaddafi as a friend is embarrassing, we’ve taken a step away from him, if not from Libyan oil. No doubt, part of Obama’s calculation is not to end up on the side opposite those who control the spigot in Libya, whether or not they are democrats.

Washington’s breakup with Aristide came seven years ago, after it appeared that he had lost a substantial portion of his disillusioned base — and hardened the opposition of the powerful elite. But he still had two years left to serve in a term to which he had been democratically elected, and a lot of Haitians hoped that America would back the democratic process, even if it didn’t like the democrat.

Massive demonstrations (funded by his enemies, his supporters argued) pressed for his departure; he and his entourage were increasingly linked to corruption and murders of critics, journalists and potential competitors. When a small band of armed men began a slow march from the northern part of Haiti toward the capital, U.S. and French officials reportedly warned Aristide that they could not protect him.

Ten years after Bill Clinton had praised him as Haiti’s best hope for democracy, Aristide was suddenly a pariah, flown secretly out of the country and dumped in central Africa without finishing his term of office. Eventually Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa, offered him exile.

On his return last week, Aristide criticized the exclusion of his Fanmi Lavalas party from the electoral process that the U.S. had endorsed, saying it represented the “exclusion of the majority.” He has refrained from directly criticizing Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat, the two presidential candidates in the runoff. No doubt, his presence has already undermined the legitimacy of the result. But after seven years abroad, at least Aristide is back home.

For Qaddafi, hunkered down in his bunker and hoping that the bombs aren’t smart enough to find him, the divorce from the U.S. could prove a lot more costly. Unlike Haiti, which at best is a foreign policy annoyance to the U.S. (no boat people washing up on the Florida beaches, please), Libya is far more strategic. It borders Egypt and is a significant supplier of oil. The U.S. may argue that its U.N. mandate does not include killing or removing Qaddafi, but hey, bad things can happen when you break up.

Joel Dreyfuss is The Root‘s managing editor.

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