Special Report

Death of a Dictator

The U.S. helped topple the tyrant of Tripoli, but is it any closer to understanding what is going on in North Africa and the Middle East?

By 10.21.11

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Did he jump or was he pushed? We do not know whether Moammar Gaddafi, supreme guide of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah for 41 years and embattled Tripolitan strongman during six months of civil war, died with a gun in his hands or was killed after being wounded and captured by troops answering to the country's National Transition Council. They had been fighting for weeks in Sirte (his home town) where his loyalists made their last stand.

Either way, he perished by the sword, as befits a tyrant. What were his last thoughts? Did his career appear to him

full of sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing…?

It is worth considering if there was anything in his mind approaching the notions that went through the mind of English literature's most famous tyrant before Macduff's righteous sword cut him down. The reason it is worth considering is that if there is one thing that we ought to know about the civil strife that has beset the Arab societies of North Africa and the Middle East for nearly a year, it is that we have viewed it almost exclusively through Western eyes.

Our policy leaders, if not the rest of us necessarily, certainly ought to do just that: their first responsibility, after all, is to ask what dangers and opportunities these events represent for the Western nations. In this sense, therefore, it is quite right to ask whether the winners among the multitude of parties (one report mentioned a hundred) that are competing in Sunday's election in Tunisia (where the "Arab Spring" began) are "democrats" or "islamists" or variations of these, and whether they want to do business with us in a way that works for us as well as them. This is incomparably more important than whether the elections are "free and fair," by whatever standards some boondoggling busybodies in or out of government want to apply.

Elections come and go, what matters to us is who is in charge and what their intentions are. Here we are ten years into our neocolonial venture into the Arabo-Muslim world, and we have spilled blood and spent treasures for what? To see Christianity, such as it was, totally eradicated in Afghanistan, with Iraq soon to follow and Egypt as well, incredible as this sounds. But it is not incredible. What remains of Lebanese Christianity, or Syrian? And how is it that the Iraqi government that exists only because we have protected it manages to be ambivalent in its attitude toward the turmoil in Syria -- does this government not realize that the entire civilized world is aghast at the brutality with which the Alewi-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad is repressing its opponents?

However, this is what viewing events through Western eyes will do that to you. We assume too readily that the authorities in Kabul or Bagdad care what the civilized world thinks. They care to the degree that it gives them some sense on how to deal with us.

Is it likely that Moammar Gaddafi, who overthrew King Idris to establish his regime, thought like Macbeth when he had the king of Scotland murdered? Did he worry that the horrid deed would drown the wind with tears? Tyranny for Gaddafi was not a moral problem any more than murder. Macduff's outburst, "We'll have thee as our rarer monsters are, painted upon a pole, and underwrit, Here may you see the tyrant," might scare him -- it did scare him, and he murdered political opponents by the thousands, forced thousands more into European and American emigration. But it did not affect him the way it did Macbeth, whose feelings of guilt contribute to his undoing. Shakespeare did not underestimate political power; on the contrary, the crimes or political crises in his plays are resolved by political means and military force, or the police power of the state. However, his dramas take place against a moral or political background that is readily intelligible to his audience, which expects to see guilt, or contrition, or at least rationalization in his protagonists.

It is not at all clear that non-Western tyrants (let us be nice and not single out the Arabs) see any reason for such sentiments. We have been engaging in "nation-building" efforts a key component of which is to transfer to these distant lands the political habits and individual moral outlooks that we take for granted. We expect them to want to be, if only hypocritically, decent personally if they are going to set up decent political regimes.

The Arabs (and others) always understood this to be a major Western weakness. That is why, among other things, they use the language of Western progressivism in their PR. They are for "socialism" -- jamahiriyah means "people's state," as in "people's democracy" in Stalinist Eastern Europe -- they participate in human rights panels and committees at the UN, they denounce "colonialism" and "imperialism" and support one another's "liberation movements," when they are far away.

Democratic forces and human rights movements did not scare Arab tyrannies. They repressed them, co-opted them, ignored them, depending on what was most cost-effective, or what pleased the whims of the ruling cliques. These forces and movements, such as they were and are, always appealed for support in the West, rarely obtained it. It is not surprising the strongmen should feel invulnerable.

Tormented by his own evil, paranoid, Macbeth falls back on the desperate idea, obtained from the witches, that he is indestructible because the forces needed to overcome him have not, or cannot be, mobilized. In this Shakespeare understood a central factor in the psychology of tyrants applicable to all times and places. But there were mobilizations in many Arab countries in the past year. We had nothing to do with them, as best anyone knows, and it is not at all certain they will have anything to do with us in the spring's aftermath.

Did Gaddafi have a final insight when they cornered him and did it move him, the old soldier -- a graduate of Sandhurst, no less -- to one last fight?

I will not yield
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnan Wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
And damned be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!"

The Arab tyrants of Gaddafi's generation explained their deeds and their regimes with a mixture of references to Islam when it suited them, to a golden age that may have existed once, to anti-colonial struggles they turned into founding myths, even if -- especially if -- they participated in the often violent displacement of the founders. This official front worked for decades. The Arab revolt of the past months tore it down. Zine Ben Ali gave up, slunked out of Tunisia for a quiet exile in Riyadh. Hosni Mubarak gave up, perhaps demoralized as his own old Army comrades abandoned him. Gaddafi chose to fight and die. Can the revolt now restore some degree of normality to these lands scorched by bitterness?

Hail, King! For so thou art. [Macduff says to Malcolm] Behold where stands
The usurper's cursed head. The time is free.

Would that we knew how to help them use the time they have paid dearly for. But if we do not, perhaps the best we can do is stand aside.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.