His badge gleaming in the sunshine, the sheriff strides down the dusty western street, wins his shoot-out with the villain, restores peace and order, and rides off into the sunset.
This Hollywood stereotype is embedded in America’s psyche, but translates poorly into its foreign policy. Indeed no US policeman, in cowboy times or today, could do what American troops did on Saturday in Libya: capture a citizen and spirit him away.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said blithely that the abduction of Abu Anas Al Liby complied with US law. And Mr Al Liby certainly seems to qualify as a villain: he has been wanted since 1998 in connection with two bombings of US embassies in Africa, in which 220 people died.
Indeed, the ways of US law have become increasingly tortuous since September 11, 2001. From the legal black hole of Guantanamo to the practice of extraordinary rendition, the US has rigged up a legal framework that purports to justify the steady expansion of America’s counterproductive, vigilante-style campaign against terrorists.
There is, however, also the small matter of Libyan law. The sheriff of cowboy-movie lore is the one who upholds law and order.
To be sure, “Libyan law” is more theory than practice just now. After decades of dictatorship, the six million Libyans have been unable to muster very much solidarity; a slide into “failed state” status is a real possibility.
But how is it that the US government, with all its advisers and experts and scholars, cannot distinguish the relatively minor issue of one individual accused of terrorism from the much bigger one of Libya’s future? Why did senior policymakers choose to slap Libyans in the face with this raid, instead of helping the government there to build institutions and set policies that can offer obvious benefits to all Libyans?
There is an instructive comparison to be made between the US raid in Libya and the one in Somalia on the same day. In east Africa, US troops went in with the approval of a government that is making progress; there the US was on the side of law and order.
In a perverse way, the Tripoli raid will bolster Libyan unity, but only by consolidating and increasing public hostility towards the US. Indeed, extremists across the world have been handed another recruiting tool. It’s not exactly a happy Hollywood ending.