In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat struck back at Libyan provocations and almost invaded the country. Egypt's massive army could have smashed the Libyan military and easily removed Gadhafi, but Egypt was talked out of the war at the last minute by concerned Arab nations.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan ordered a strike against Tripoli aimed at Gadhafi himself -- who may have been warned ahead of time of the impending attack and escaped. Reagan gave up on further missions against Gadhafi.
Gadhafi fought and lost a decade-long war against Chad from 1978 to 1987. Yet despite thousands of dead and wounded Libyans, the defeat did not endanger Gadhafi's hold on power.
During his 42-year reign, Gadhafi has sent troops to help out the monstrous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, blown up passenger jets, supported Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkan wars, ordered assassinations abroad, masterminded terrorist plots -- and always survived by using his vast petroleum fortunes to buy reprieves.
Unlike pro-Western strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt who simply left when protests mounted, Gadhafi is perfectly willing to kill thousands of his own people to retain power. After all, he is a totalitarian outlaw with nowhere to go. Usually, such monsters do not abdicate unless they are yanked out by American ground troops -- as in Grenada, Iraq and Panama -- or bombed relentlessly for weeks on end, as in the case of the NATO campaign against Milosevic.
Sanctions and pariah status usually do not matter much to brutal dictators like Gadhafi -- as the longevity of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, North Korea's Kim Jong-Il or Cuba's Fidel Castro attests.
In our defense, we can say that Gadhafi's removal was properly a European task. We can even agree that President Obama acted precipitously, without a clear-cut mission, strategy or desired outcome -- and without majority support of either Congress or the American people.
Yes, we can say all that. But if Gadhafi or his family survives in power after the United States simply got tired and quit, we will also be able to say that this sort of defeat is something quite new in American history.