When strongmen are vulnerable, as now, the priority is to push them towards reform and away from violence. Barack Obama, America’s president, was right to stand behind the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Libya. America’s army chiefs were right to use their influence to restrain Egypt’s armed forces from shooting into the crowds…. And if Mr Qaddafi uses his air force to kill large numbers of his own people, the world would be right to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
But most of the time strongmen are not vulnerable, and then the judgment becomes more complicated. Libya, with all its cruelty and its tragic violence this week, shows why.
The ostracism of the 1990s failed to shift Mr Qaddafi from power, despite its moral clarity. But it did help persuade him that he stood to gain from engaging with the world. That opened the door to some shabby deals. The release of one of Mr Qaddafi’s terrorists from a British jail, the sale of weapons to Libya and the elevation of a dictator into a statesman at the G8 all looked unwise at the time. Today they look despicable.