Libyan Blowback?

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is far from my favorite person. But, before we started an undeclared war on his regime, it would have been wise to think things through more carefully. I am not saying that our actions were a mistake, just that there has been insufficient thought given to their impact on issues such as nuclear proliferation:

In December 2003, Gaddafi agreed to dismantle Libya’s nuclear weapons program. At the time, it looked like a wise move to forestall American attempts at regime change. Other nations threatened by the United States are now likely to see Libya’s action as a failed attempt at appeasing America, motivating them to accelerate their own nuclear weapons programs. Iran, for example, cannot but notice that North Korea became relatively immune to our threats after it developed nuclear weapons, whereas Gaddafi was considered fair game.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) focused on another important issue: “There needs to be a plan about what happens after Gaddafi. Who will be in charge then, and who pays for this all? President Obama, so far, has only expressed vague hopes.”

Another issue that we should have thought through: It takes a much smaller fraction of a population to create the impression of widespread discontent than to determine the direction of a new government. (Egypt has a population of roughly 80 million, while approximately a quarter of a million were involved in the Tahrir Square protests.) The demands of demonstrators therefore may have little to do with the direction that a revolution later follows: Iran’s revolution against the Shah initially had a strong leftist component, but was hijacked by right wing ayatollahs.

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Martin Hellman


The need to think things through more carefully before going to war is covered in the section “Critical Thinking” in Handout #6 for my seminar, “Nuclear Weapons, Risk and Hope.” All six handouts for the seminar are listed on my course page. Use only those from the most recent quarter.

George Kenney raises a number of important questions about our actions in Libya in his Huffington Post article.

Retired Army Colonel and now Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich makes a strong case for reexaming our fundamental assumptions in his book, Washington Rules. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer covers some of the same ideas in his recent article in The National Interest.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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1 Response to Libyan Blowback?

  1. Joyce Beattie says:

    Just thought I’d expand, ” Iran’s revolution against the Shah initially had a strong leftist component, but was hijacked by right wing ayatollahs.”
    The revolution frightened and was undermined by the U.S., who saw the Ayatollahs as the safe choice, regardless of the Iranian people’s wishes.

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