Editor's note: CNN contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. Bennett is the author, with Seth Leibsohn, of the upcoming book "The Fight of Our Lives: Knowing the Enemy, Speaking the Truth, and Choosing to Win the War Against Radical Islam."
(CNN) -- "We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever," wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1786. He was writing about whether to take up arms against the Barbary Pirates.
Some 225 years later, and 25 years after President Ronald Reagan launched a strike on Libya, the United States military is again at the shores of Tripoli. When President Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya in 1986, he did so 10 days after Libya terrorists bombed a West Berlin nightclub. In explaining his actions, he said, "There should be no place on Earth where terrorists can rest and train and practice their deadly skills," and "if necessary, we will do it again."
After the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, it was necessary to do it again -- but we did nothing.
In 2006, the United States took Moammar Gadhafi's Libya off the official state sponsor of terrorism list after we had restored diplomatic relations in light of his renunciation of Libya's WMD program. But, by 2009, Gadhafi was embracing and welcoming back to Libya Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the leader of the Pan Am bombing that killed 270 civilians.
And, even today, there is concern Gadhafi will yet unleash his mustard gas stockpiles. The truth is, Gadhafi never renounced the worst WMD system in Libya: Gadhafi himself. The regime in Libya is Gadhafi and it has been rated for years as one of the most miserable human and political rights abusers in the world, receiving the worst of scores from Freedom House.
This is the very issue that raises the most questions about our military efforts in Libya just now. Several weeks ago, President Obama stated that Col. Gadhafi had "lost legitimacy with his people" and "needs to step down."
This past weekend, however, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said our effort was "not about seeing him go," and that one possible outcome of our latest military efforts there could see Gadhafi maintaining power. Then, again, Monday, the president said, "It is U.S. policy that Gadhafi needs to go."
If Gadhafi stays, our efforts will be for naught. It is long past time for him to go and it is long past clear he will not go on his own. While there is worthy concern that whatever or whoever comes next to lead Libya will not be a democratic ally -- some of the Libyan dissidents are jihadists, others seem more pro-American -- it, of course, could be worse: Consider a jihadist uprising, a government run by Islamic fundamentalists even more overtly hostile to the West.
Still, it is worth pondering what Professor Fouad Ajami said on CNN:
"I think we should give him a chance to have the martyrdom that he's always talking about. You know characters like Gadhafi, like Saddam, they always tell you they're ready for martyrdom, and then they hide, they run, they do everything they can, they get people as human shields to protect them. I think if Gadhafi is killed the Libyans have a chance to build a better country than the tyranny that this man has constructed, a virtual North Korea on the Mediterranean. These people have known hell for four decades. We should not worry about the vacuum that he would leave behind.
"We should not worry about the so-called jihadists will somehow fill the vacuum. All these are really boogeymen in a way. We should focus on what this man has been, on the terror he has been, on the crimes he has committed, on the Lockerbie -- on the attacks on civilian airliners, on all of this, his whole track record. That's what's in front of us."
Gadhafi is a brutal dictator, an international outlaw, and a sponsor of terrorism with gallons of American and other blood on his hands. Thus, to the question, is it in America's vital interests to see Gadhafi go, the answer can only be "yes."
What could very well be worse than taking out Gadhafi now would be a surviving, embittered and emboldened Gadhafi dictator having survived and prevailed over another U.S. attack -- a hero-dictator willing to link up with other terrorist organizations or states set on attacking the United States and the West.
The rest of the world is watching how we follow through with Libya. Leaving Gadhafi in power, yet again, will send precisely the wrong message to others in his league -- be they terrorist dictators in Iran or elsewhere.
There are important considerations in joining a war against such outlaws. But once we make the decision, we should follow through, not leaving dictators in power and not leaving any doubt as to how serious we are about our commitments. It seems, finally, our and the world's problems with Gadhafi have gone on long enough.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.