President Barack Obama called upon Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi to step down last week, stating that he has forfeited his legitimacy by opening fire upon his own people. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was a little more nuanced, calling upon Gaddafi to "step back." The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, added his voice to our president's.
Apart from possible discord among the Western powers -- which admittedly would be nothing unusual regarding what to do (if anything) about the coasts of Barbary -- these recent statements beg a question: just where is Gaddafi supposed to go? He has alienated the Saudis, who traditionally extend hospitality to dictators on the run, at least when they are Sunni Muslims, by accusing King Abdullah of being weak on all the issues that matter: Arab unity, support for the Palestinian cause, and resistance to American involvement in the Middle East.
He cannot go to Sudan, because he is furious with his on and off ally Omar el Bashir for allowing the South to secede (one of Hosni Mubarak's last acts of statesmanship was to join with Gaddafi and Bashir last December in a futile attempt to postpone the referendum on Southern independence), and Bashir, who is lying low while he figures out what to do next and does not want to call attention to himself while he tries to wriggle out of a World Court indictment for mass murder in Darfur, does not really want a cumbersome guest.
Where can he go, with his phalanx of female bodyguards, his wardrobe of African boubous and Bedouin robes and Latin caudillo uniforms? The insignia and photos he pins on his chest, his collection of aviator glasses and his facial products? His habit is to travel with a tent, in the nomadic tradition of the Gaddafta tribe of which he is the leader -- it caused some legal difficulties when he rented space near New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly and tried to pitch it.
He cannot follow the money he looted from Libya's oil revenues to where he stashed it in Switzerland. Apart from the fact that the Swiss are likely to comply with international calls to freeze those of his assets still in their vaults, they do not much like him after the trouble his son Hannibal caused a couple of years ago. Hannibal was arrested in a Geneva hotel for assault on a chambermaid. As a foreign dignitary, you can beat up your wife, as he regularly did, but they draw the line on attacking the help. Gaddafi retaliated by moving $4 billion out of Swiss banks, according to the London Telegraph, blocking oil deliveries, and imprisoning an unfortunate Swiss citizen unluckily in Libya by coincidence.
The Swiss caved on the Hannibal affair, declining to prosecute him, and their national was released, but before criticizing them, it is worth recalling (again thanks to the Telegraph) that the other son, Saif, is a popular man in London (he earned a doctorate at LSE) and may well have had a hand in persuading the British government to release the Lockerbie bomber on health grounds. The poor man was supposed to be dying, according to a medical report which the examining doctor later admitted was faulty, and the idea was to let him spend his last months at home. The bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, 180 Americans on board, is only the most notorious of Gaddafi's long list of terrorist or terrorist-enabling acts. There was the bombing of a UTA flight over Chad (the wife of the U.S. ambassador to that country was on board), the bombing of a Berlin disco which killed two U.S. servicemen, prompting American retaliation, the murder of a policewoman in London by diplomatic personnel firing from the Libyan embassy.
Even though he passed himself as a great promoter of African unity, getting himself called "King of Kings" at a meeting of traditional chiefs which he organized for the purpose of distributing largesse, Gaddafi's African friends were Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and Haile Mengistu. There remains Robert Mugabe, in whose country, Zimbabwe, Gaddafi has invested substantial sums.
However, he has invested far more in Italy, notably in the automobile and banking sectors, and he seems to get along well, or well enough, with Silvio Berlusconi, who might appreciate having him around to distract people from his current legal problems. And until the current shrill he was, according the Telegraph, getting along famously in England, or at least his son Saif was, which is why until very recently Tony Blair waxed eloquent on how much improvement there had been since Gaddafi foreswore terrorism as an instrument of state policy and gave up his quest for weapons of mass destruction.
Lest this bring comfort to those who are eager to see in Mr. Blair the very embodiment of cynical opportunism, this line really was no different from Condoleezza Rice's during one of the last big gestures of her tenure as secretary of state. In September 2008 she stopped in Tripoli (the first Secretary of State to do so since 1953) and spoke of Gaddafi as if he were the graduate of a 12-step program for international criminals.
IN THIS CONTEXT it is difficult to feel the Obama administration mishandled the Arab revolt as it has played itself out so far in Libya, or that it handled it any better or worse than any putative alternative might have. The administration and its diplomats simply took their cue, and not only in reaction to events in Libya but to those in Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere as well, from recent past practice.
True, there is something downright Carteresque in the way Pres Obama and his men and women seem to reflexively side with the dictators first and only after a week of screaming by observers telling them to look at the wall and read the writing, permit themselves a few words to acknowledge the possibility of real change, a word they used to favor. This has been particularly glaring in the Iran case, because there we have strong reasons to believe the demonstrators understand words like "freedom" and "democracy" as we do.
And it is true, as well, that there has been something peculiar in the manner the president has adopted in addressing Arabs, whether in his physical comportment or in his rhetoric, as at Cairo a couple of years ago, and what is peculiar about it is that it is at once abject and obsequious. But still, it is difficult to avoid a historical fact, which is that ever since the famous meeting between FDR and Ibn Saud, the basic question has been: How do we placate these folks? How do we deal with them so we can make deals with them? That has been the basic question.
This has been the cause of a certain amount of what might be called ambiguity, or prevarication. We can only do so much, we are occupied elsewhere, we have to deal with the world as it is, there are over-riding priorities. To some Arabs, this was not ambiguity or prevarication, it was hypocrisy. Or it was a sign of weakness, which they found hard to understand for by all evidence we had the power to get what we want, take what we want. Or perhaps, they thought, we were simply fools, who did not know the ways of the world.
To other Arabs, who were Muslims, it really did not matter whether we were fools or phonies; the important issue was that we were Christians, Jews, possibly democrats or communists. And we were not their Christians and Jews -- for it is important to remember there once were substantial populations of Christian Arabs and even Jewish Arabs, or Arabized Jews. These militant Muslims rose in influence under the impact of the failure of the nationalist regimes that took over from the receding French and British empires. They said: Not only our leaders cannot prevent these Americans (and other Westerners) from stealing our riches, keeping us miserable and backward, and humiliating us (which was not our intent, of course, but the victim card resonated well), but they are arriving in ever greater numbers and they desecrate the dar al islam.
It is not that the Arabs, which is a term that covers some widely different cultures, are more xenophobic than other peoples, and in fact they tend to be delighted to have visitors, including what we would call permanent non-national residents. It is that they felt, as they still do, that the imitation of the West was not working for their societies. It should be rejected.
The return to Islamic rigor is not new; the history of most religions is in large part the history of religious revivals. It is different in our time because it takes place in the context of modernity, the principal element of which is liberty. If Islam cannot flourish in free societies, it must make war against them -- in self-defense or, in its madder moments, with the idea of conquering them.
Our position traditionally was that this was their problem, not ours, and we should get along as well as possible while they worked through it. This changed, of course, with the declaration of war against us by radicals.
We first encountered Libya as one of the lairs of the Barbary Pirates, and problems of civilization were of little importance compared to matters of freedom of the seas, commerce, piracy, and our strategic alliances. The British and the French did not share our assessment of how to abolish piracy in the Mediterranean, and we tried to do it, with mixed results, by ourselves. When the problem returned a century and a half later in the form of Muammar Gaddafi, we were just becoming aware of the latest chapter in the Islamic revival, and we did not take the measure of how he would juxtapose it upon pan-Arab nationalism with, for good measure, a strong dose of "third worldism" thrown in. Gaddafi sometimes expressed the desire to be a kind of African Che Guevara, aiding and abetting revolution all across the Continent.
Gaddafi always was an oil-price hawk; one of the first things he did after coming to power he did shrewdly, demanding new terms with independent companies, such as Armand Hammer's Occidental, who were not big enough to resist him. By getting more control over output and a larger share of the profits from companies doing business in Libya, he showed the other oil-exporting countries that they could get much more money and use oil to achieve political goals.
Gaddafi earned a great amount of respect for his leadership role in changing the rules of the oil business. He also did a lot of damage to poor countries, particularly in Africa, whose economies could not keep up with the "oil shocks" of the 1970s. This long-term influence on the world's economies, however, regardless of how it is measured, always was eclipsed by his activities as a meddler in other countries' affairs. By means of assassinations, the sponsorship of terrorist groups, and acts of war, he has taken hostile action in enough countries to turn him into an international outlaw.
GADDAFI IS NO PARANOIAC; he really has enemies everywhere, and he knows because he made them. The political police, the layers of internal security within the army and parallel to it, the revolutionary committees to mobilize neighborhoods and tribes when the occasion demanded while maintaining networks of grass roots thought control, served the Guide well; after all, he came to power 42 years ago. He did not mind being hated, but he insisted on being feared. Back alley murders or public hangings served the same purpose: you did not know who was watching and listening and you did not dare ask.
Gaddafi used his immense oil revenues to make foreign enemies by exporting violence. He picked fights within the Arab world, sent troops into Chad and lent arms and advisors and money to some of Africa's worst despots. Anwar Sadat thought Gaddafi was so unpopular that he could march into Libya's eastern oil fields and seize them (he miscalculated badly).
Gaddafi now seems determined to teach all those who smirked and shook their heads a lesson in tyrannous-regime management: if the people will not crawl, kill enough of them and they will. It is a bet most observers think he will lose. But in any case, he has no choice.
Given the distrust of our motives and intentions across the Arab world, we should not be surprised if we get very few thanks for the overthrow of the dictators. We would like to think that we provoked their falls by the example of our own liberty; by the sacrifices that we made and the facts on the ground that we created in Iraq and Afghanistan; by our support for democracy-building initiatives. The "foreigner's gift," as Fouad Ajami calls our efforts, is real and profound, but to appreciate it, the people concerned must figure out what kinds of societies they want. Much of this work will have to consist of coming to terms with the world such as it is rather than as they would like to represent it. We Americans, who have a boundless propensity to confuse our wishes for reality in foreign lands, should know something about this.
For the Arabs it is especially difficult to separate out reality from fantasy because it is their own societies, communities, cultures, that are at stake, not some exotic faraway place that we can, however great the disappointment, turn out backs on after much toil and trouble -- see our adventure in Vietnam -- secure in the knowledge that home, at least, is recognizable and empirically verifiable, at least some of the time. Blaming their own dictators for their woes is certainly a more cold-eyed way of assessing their own political shortcomings than blaming Israel or America, as they have been so often tempted to do.
How thoroughly they persist in this will, indeed, be one very significant measure of whether this is a revolt from which liberty can take root.
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