The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—and possible GOP candidate in 2012—tells Lloyd Grove of his decidedly undiplomatic solution to the crisis in Libya: Assassinate the dictator. Plus, Babak Dehghanpisheh reports from Libya on the rebels’ key victory in Ajdabiya.Former ambassador John Bolton, President Bush’s decidedly undiplomatic envoy to the United Nations who is considering running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, has a decidedly undiplomatic solution to the crisis in Libya: The United States should terminate Muammar Gaddafi with extreme prejudice.
Speaking Saturday afternoon in Des Moines, Iowa, at Republican Rep. Steve King’s Conservative Principles Conference—a cattle call for presidential prospects in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses—Bolton said: “Our military has a wonderful euphemism called ‘national command authority.’ It’s a legitimate military target. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi is the national command authority. I think that’s the answer right there.”
The red-meat applause line produced for Bolton, the longest of long-shots in the presidential contest, a rousing ovation from about 600 conservative activists filling up the grand ballroom at the Des Moines Marriott.
“I think he’s a legitimate target,” the white-mustachioed Bolton told me after his speech. “That’s what Reagan did in 1986″—when U.S. jets bombed Gaddafi’s residence in Tripoli, killing his young daughter, in response to a lethal terrorist bombing in Germany—”and that would end the regime right there. He has murdered innocent American civilians. He has never faced responsibility for it. So I don’t have any hesitation in saying that.”
I asked Bolton if the Bush administration made a mistake in helping bring Gaddafi back into the community of world leaders and reestablishing diplomatic relations with the rogue dictator. Bolton served as ambassador to the U.N. when President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were cozying up to Gaddafi in return for the Libyan leader’s renouncing terrorism and the pursuit of nuclear and chemical weapons.
“No, I think it was the right thing to do, to negotiate the end of his nuclear weapons program,” Bolton replied. “You can imagine what the circumstances would be today if he had nuclear weapons. But,” he added, “nobody at the time thought it was a get-out-of-jail-free card in perpetuity.”
Bolton said he’s willing to let Gaddafi live, but doubts that outcome is likely. “I personally would still be happy to send him into exile somewhere,” he said, “but I’m not sure that option is open, given the referral of that matter to the International Criminal Court. That was a mistake. No dictatorial thug in the future is ever going to go into exile if they think they face that prospect… In this case, it simply gives Gaddafi an incentive to dig in.”
Bolton said he supports killing Gaddafi even though great uncertainty exists about who or what might replace him, including elements of al Qaeda who reportedly have been aiding Libya’s ragtag band of anti-Gaddafi rebels.
“I don’t doubt it at all,” he said of reports of al Qaeda’s involvement. “It’s a risk, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t have any confidence that we really know” who makes up Gaddafi’s opposition. “One of the things the administration should be doing is identifying pro-American, pro-Western leaders in the opposition and assisting them. I don’t see any evidence that they’re doing that. But this is a rare case of Gaddafi on the one hand, the unknown on the other—and I’d pick the unknown.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.