The man Ronald Reagan called "the mad dog of the Middle East" is living up to that title these days, launching bloody assaults on his own population and reminding us of why we hated him for so long. Moammar Gadhafi is the man behind the bomb that brought down Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, killing 270 people (190 Americans). He is also behind the 1986 bombing of the La Belle discotheque in Berlin, killing several Americans and wounding 229 people. By the time Reagan left office, we had a total trade ban on Libya and had, in response to the attack on La Belle, bombed targets near Tripoli and Benghazi.
Two decades later we have come full circle, watching Gadhafi on TV with horror. On Tuesday he said "I call on those who love Moammar Gadhafi, who represents glory . . . to come out of your houses and attack" the anti-regime demonstrators. He would not resign, he said, because "Moammar Gadhafi is not the president, he is not a normal human being."
That is clear, but for most of the past decade we made believe he was. After the U.S. Army made short shrift of Saddam Hussein's forces in 2003, Gadhafi approached British intelligence and sought to come in from the cold. He agreed, after negotiations conducted largely by the CIA and London's MI6, to abandon terrorism and hand over to the U.S. his programs for developing missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
He kept his part of the bargain: Those materials reside at a military base in the U.S., and he has stayed away from terrorist groups. Libya began making payments to the families of those killed on Pan Am 103, ultimately reaching an agreement with all but one family and handing over a total of $1.5 billion.
In exchange, the U.S. sent an ambassador to Tripoli and allowed Libya to open an embassy in Washington. Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam visited Washington, and his suave and murderous intelligence chief Musa Kusa (Michigan State University class of '78, and more recently Libya's foreign minister) was allowed back into the U.S. All sanctions ended. The U.S. stopped blocking Libyan efforts to join United Nations committees, and in 2008 Libya served for a month as president of the Security Council. That same year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya.
The U.S. also restrained its criticism of Gadhafi's internal repression. The agreement with Gadhafi came in 2003, the same year that President George W. Bush delivered his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy saying that "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
How did we square that circle when it came to Gadhafi? We hoped that our embassy folks, visitors, academics and businessmen would—in the long run—pull Libya toward being a more open society. And we suspended disbelief about the intermittent promises of reform, usually delivered by Saif al-Islam, that change was on the way.
Our annual human rights reports told the truth, but there was no question that the Bush administration (and the Obama administration that followed) felt limited by Gadhafi's adherence to the bargain. We had not promised to be silent about human rights abuses, and we were not, but there was no real energy behind our statements. We were doing business with Gadhafi, not trying to overthrow him. The fate of Fathi Eljahmi, one of Libya's most prominent dissidents, was symbolic: Bush and Obama administration pressure was insufficient to free him from prison until just before his death in 2009.
Seen from this bloody February of 2011, the agreement with Libya was still the right policy. Gadhafi in his bunker with control over missiles, chemical weapons and a rudimentary nuclear program is a terrifying thought. So is a Libya after regime collapse with those materials available to the highest bidder.
Had we reneged—taken Libya's weaponry but then started a campaign against Gadhafi's rule—he'd have re-armed fast and gone back to terrorism. It's also not clear what more strenuous and public efforts to promote change in Libya would have achieved. It's not as if one could reason with Gadhafi.
Gadhafi's vicious regime has left Libya far worse than he found it on the day of his coup in 1969. King Idriss was at least a unifying figure for a country that had not long been unified and had been independent only since 1951. Gadhafi has established no national institutions, not even allowing a fake parliament of the Mubarak or Ben Ali variety that could perhaps be turned into something real.
Nor is there an army such as in Egypt, with the prestige and unity to intervene, restore calm and (we all hope) set the country on a better path. Gadhafi, who took power in a military coup, was too clever to allow a well-organized army that might do the same to him. Many units are organized along tribal lines, which has kept Gadhafi safe but may be his undoing now. If the tribes are central to defeating him, the next government will have to balance them carefully, using Libya's oil wealth to buy support and time to address its many crises.
Like Idi Amin and Emperor Bokassa, Gadhafi will soon join the pantheon of grotesque dictators who leave their countries in ruins. Given the last years—when quiet disapproval replaced forceful denunciation as U.S. policy—we can only hope that Libyans remember the decades when we were Gadhafi's worst enemy.
Mr. Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, handled Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2009.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.