Whether or not he survives the wrath of his own subjects, Muammar al-Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, will be missed only by a grab bag of plug-uglies whose terrorism he encouraged for decades. But it would be a mistake to write off the latest chapter in the Arab revolt as a case of a bomb thrower hoisted by his own petard. Gaddafi, beyond the oddities of his personality, represents as well as anyone the shame and the awfulness of the first decades of post-colonialism. It might be well to consider that his durability is also a reproach to the Western powers that let appalling regimes take shape and endure — he lasted more than four decades — out of their own indifference.
Gaddafi is — or was, depending on when you read this — not as murderous as Saddam Hussein, nor as contemptuous as Zine Ben Ali, but all that signifies is that not all Arab zaims look alike, any more than do African big men or Latin caudillos. Indeed, his surface eccentricity, just like Libya’s historical and geographical peculiarities, should remind us how different the various Arab lands really are, and how fatuous were the dreams, the chimeras rather, of pan-Arabism, no less than those of pan-Africanism. Gaddafi, an African Arab, tried both. He was unsuccessful, but the efforts caused much mischief. A bullying child cannot persuade other children to acquiesce in his desires, but he can try to coerce them. Similarly a megalomaniac among his peers, on the Continent as in the Middle East, he was feared more than derided.
Gaddafi, who came to power in 1969 when not yet 30 as the leader of a bloodless coup against the pro-Western King Idris, represents the confluence of two powerful currents in the Arab mind: anti-colonialism and pan-Arabism, which is separate but sometimes concurrent with pan-Islamism. He was just old enough for the most powerful influences on his mind to be some of the iconic, and misinterpreted, events and personalities of post-world war years: the Algerian Revolution, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the Egyptian Free Officers and the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Jewish national movement and the successful rebirth of Israel, the Ba’ath (“renaissance”) movement in the Middle East. And these: the end of the French Empire, Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez. To the young Gaddafi, who with his contemporaries adopted the imported language of the Western left to describe what he thought of as the rise of the Orient, colonialism was being replaced by a new era of Arab domination.
Gaddafi, however, was also young enough to be in a position to reap the consequences of the failure of the anti-colonial movement. Since anti-colonialism did not liberate the ex-colonial subjects in any meaningful way (except to the degree it allowed them to get away from the ex-colonies and build lives for themselves and their families in liberal Western countries), the task of the leaders of the anti-colonial movements was to maintain the replacements of the colonial regimes.
It is for this reason that you see in Gaddafi, once you get past the posturing and the clowning (not that it was funny), a coherent and consistent system, in the best sense of the word. First, stay in power: kill your opponents, preferably at home, in other countries when necessary or desirable. Put “the people” in lockstep by adopting and adapting the methods of the European police state, complete with mukabarat (secret police), statist economy, scape-goating of minority groups and foreigners, invention of foreign threats or invention of foreign adventures.
Libya is a loose geographical expression invented by Italians (whose “conquest” when it occurred in the 1920s required killing about a third of the natives) to designate Bedouin, Berber, and Arab tribal areas between Tunis and Cairo. Idris had favored Benghazi, the eastern city, Gaddafi would favor Tripoli, which the Italians had preferred. In keeping with one of the main principles of neo-colonial post-colonialism, it was imperative to unite disparate regions and population groups, some more marked by Arab influences, others more attached to their Berber origins, to create a “nation” that would be properly managed by a “state.”
At once anti-colonial and pan-Arab, Gaddafi concentrated his ire on the imperialist incursion represented by Zionism. In this he was typical of Arab tyrants: deflecting attention from their own atrocious and cruel misrule by spewing hatred upon the only successful national liberation movement to have emerged from the years after World War II. But Gaddafi also looked east and south, upon lands that should be ripe for Arab conquest, African lands, the traditional hunting grounds of Arab slavers and predators. The 40 years of Gaddafi’s Libya are inseparable from incursions into the Sahel, the regions south of the Sahara where black Africa begins, as well as into Sudan and the Horn.
At the same time, Gaddafi understood in his own way how vulnerable the West might be to its own perverse offspring, and he turned Libya into a recruitment, financing, and training base for every subversive terrorist movement that claimed to speak in the name of an oppressed class or ethnic group in western Europe. (For an excellent summary of the Gaddafi regime’s record of mischief prior to the American attack in 1986, see Daniel Pipes, TAS, March 1981.)
Often described as crazy, Gaddafi represented rather a complete and in-your-face anthology of the methods of war against the West. Ronald Reagan was quite right to describe him as “the mad dog of Tripoli”: he was that, too, but he did not do anything that other Arab despots did not do, or wanted to do. In this he was more Arab, less African. The African big men whom he resembled in so many ways never offered Western powers casus belli the way he did; they stayed on their own turfs, whereas he sought constantly to encroach on others’.
Of course, while carrying out his plans of conquest and revenge, he neglected Libyans. When they complained, he repressed them. When they rebelled, he shot them. In this, too, he is perfectly in type, even if — especially if — he called his regime the Jamahiriya, the peoples’ republic. Africans were content to call themselves president, but he was the Supreme Guide and Leader.
One of the interesting aspects of the Arab revolt currently in progress is that it highlights how ineffective the West’s response was to years and decades of aggression. Acquiescence and appeasement were the norm, yet the tyrants seem to have had feet of clay. Perhaps the West could not see this. Colonialism could be viewed only as a form of original sin; what followed had to be at least understood, when not praised. Then of course there was the blackmail, holding the world hostage for the oil fields that a few regiments might well have seized, avoiding much of the last half century’s turmoil. We will never know; but it is noteworthy that only a year or two ago Gaddafi was in fine form at the blackmailing game, holding Bulgarian health personnel hostage on spurious charges and extracting meaningful concessions from European leaders (including the French president) who negotiated their release, and hitting up the Italian president only last year for some five billion in colonial reparations.
Even if it can be argued that colonialism was wrong, it is one of the great questions of Western history to explain why such an acknowledgment should be accompanied by across the board weakness in the face of wicked regimes. Notwithstanding the official third-worldist ideology that sees Western malevolence in every turn of international politics, the reality is that the West defended itself, and with it the goal of an eventual liberal world order, only when pushed to the limit of its endurance, in other words when threatened existentially.
Ronald Reagan struck back in 1986 at terrorist attacks ordered by Gaddafi, as Thomas Jefferson had struck back a century and a half earlier at other pirates from the same region. No more than Jefferson, Reagan did not follow through on his altogether justified act in defense of America. It cannot be proven that this restraint encouraged Gaddafi to order the outrage over Lockerbie two years later. Say what you will about the wisdom of our intervention in Iraq, it is at least possible that we erred in being overly mindful of our own, not our enemies’, sense of how much force was morally acceptable.
The Arabs were never liberated by any of our interventions in their despots’ affairs. Are they now telling us that they got the message, they have to do it themselves? We do not know yet. It is a truism, but it is true, that what they do after the despots leave will be the real measure of what they want. What follows from the protests, and in particular what attitudes are adopted toward us, toward Israel, toward their African neighbors, will tell us what sorts of lessons the Libyans have drawn from their experience under Muammar al-Gaddafi.