Every American should look at Libya through the prism of the 1988 Pan Am 103 terrorist bombing that left 270 people dead. Moammar Gadhafi — the man whom Ronald Reagan called the mad dog of the Middle East — ordered an attack that killed mostly American civilians in a bombing over British soil. Yet rather than be beaten by more powerful nations, he lived to crow about it.
It took more than a decade for international investigators to uncover the crime and the international community to pressure Libya to hand over two suspects for a Scottish trial — given America's death penalty, Tripoli would never go for a U.S. trial — conducted in a Dutch courtroom.
In 2001, three judges acquitted one defendant, but found onetime Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi guilty of the bombing and sentenced him to life — which made him eligible for parole after 27 years.
In 2003, to the shock and outrage of many, the United Nations named Libya to chair its Human Rights Commission.
Libya eventually accepted "responsibility for the actions of its officials" in the bombing and agreed to pay $2.7 billion to victims' families to end economic sanctions against Tripoli.
Gadhafi also agreed to surrender Libya's unconventional weapons and open its nuclear facilities to U.N. inspectors. Many on the right — including me — saw the move as proof that the war in Iraq had a chilling effect on tyrants with weapons of mass destruction. Washington and London looked at Gadhafi and saw a bully who had been beaten and cowed.
With these moves, and title to Africa's largest oil reserves, Gadhafi won his way into the bosom of international capitalism.
From that perch, Gadhafi then was able to engage in what a report released by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., last year called "commercial warfare" to free his man Megrahi. It used a $900 million oil exploration deal with BP as leverage to pressure the British government.
As The New York Times reported, in 2009, Libyan officials warned executives from top energy companies that there would be "serious consequences" if they didn't cough up $1.5 billion to defray Tripoli's Pan Am 103 payments. In his greed, Gadhafi appealed to the greed in others, and with some companies, it worked. A State Department cable described Libya as a "kleptocracy" in which the Gadhafi family and its allies claimed "a direct stake in anything worth buying, selling or owning."
On Aug. 20, 2009, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill released Megrahi, who ostensibly had less than three months to live. He is still alive, and according to news reports, driving a Lamborghini.
MacAskill said that Tripoli had promised to handle Megrahi's homecoming in a "low-key and sensitive fashion." President Obama said that he told the regime that Megrahi should not be "welcomed ... but instead should be under house arrest." Then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was gulled in similar fashion.
It is a clear sign of Gadhafi's scorn for Washington and London that Megrahi landed on the tarmac to a flag-waving hero's welcome. Having won it all back, Gadhafi gave the United States and United Kingdom the middle finger.
Since Libyan rebel leaders sought international help in overthrowing Gadhafi, I've been torn. Gadhafi is a thug who is holding on to power by killing his own people. And he's not afraid to lash out against enemy powers.
But I listened when Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that establishing a no-fly zone would not be as easy as some Beltway swells seemed to think.
Besides, America already is fighting two wars.
About the only conclusion I have reached so far is that it's wrong to think there's an easy answer as to what Washington should do.
Sure, there's the hypocrisy angle. A conservative can hit Obama for sending U.S. troops to fight another unfunded war against a country that presents no imminent threat without an exit strategy. But none of that matters.
What matters is what happens next.
America, Great Britain and France have superior firepower, but we just want to get on with our lives. Gadhafi wants to get even.
He has bags full of cash, an army of nasty henchmen and more resolve than can be found in all of Washington.
Gadhafi, 68, has proved to be a dangerous man to fight if you don't destroy him.
It must be music to Gadhafi's ears to hear that Obamaland won't use the word "war." Last week, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called Operation Odyssey Dawn a "kinetic military action."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe added to Western Europe's wet-noodle image when he announced that the destruction of Gadhafi's machine will take "days or weeks, certainly not months." These remarks were delivered during the anti-Gadhafi alliance's disquieting weeklong tussle over whether NATO would exercise command control over the coalition.
It's the post-Pan Am 103 scenario all over again. The international community just wants to end the conflict. He wants to win.
E-mail Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com.