The meaning of the end of Gaddafi

2011-08-29 10:01

Libya, a tiny country of deserts with some oil wells, was never a particularly important country, strategically.

That is, unless you’re a historian of the Roman Empire, when Libya was the empire’s breadbasket, or of Italian imperialism.

In 1969, when Muammar Gaddafi and Abdul Salam Jalloud – who, it seems, recently defected in advance of le deluge – seized power, they were less-than-well-schooled copies of the then-fading Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, who was Gaddafi’s inspiration.

Unfortunately, Gaddafi took power as an Arab nationalist at the end of nationalism’s heyday, and he never quite figured out how to reinvent himself.
For a time, he tried to portray himself as the harbinger of the Third Way, halfway between capitalism and communism.

But if that inspired anyone at all, it was Bill Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair, who tried to invent their own version of the Third Way.

And now Gaddafi is gone. A leader who was probably mentally deranged during most or all of his reign, given to mood swings and paranoid outbursts, is no more.

That can’t be bad as far as the long-suffering population of Libya is concerned.

In 1972, when I travelled across Libya, spending time in Tripoli and then hitchhiking across the desert to Benghazi, Libya presented itself as a vast, sand-dune-filled landscape with a Western-built oil industry over the horizon to the south of the coast road.

Nearly 40 years later, it still is pretty much the same, although, by all accounts, Benghazi has deteriorated remarkably since then.

Gaddafi’s legacy is that of an oil-rich nation with almost no population – now barely six million people – that suffered in poverty and irrelevance all these years.

Libya, to be sure, is no Dubai or Qatar.

What does Gaddafi’s departure mean? First, what it doesn’t mean is that the United States and Nato are powerful actors in the region.

It took nearly six months for the full might of Nato – bombarding every Libyan tank and armoured personnel carrier that moved, decimating Gaddafi’s command-and-control system, and serving as the air wing of the fractious Libyan opposition – to clear the way to ­Tripoli.

And we can all hope and pray that the “Libyan model” – an armed opposition backed by US and Nato air power – isn’t the model for Syria or, worse, Iran.

At the very least, President Assad of Syria will look at Libya and draw the appropriate conclusion, namely that he must at all costs prevent the emergence of a Syrian “Benghazi”.

For Ayatollah Khamenei, the probably equally mentally imbalanced leader of Iran, he’ll draw parallel conclusions – one of which will be that Gaddafi was foolish to give up his nuclear weapons quest in the 2000s and trust the West, which seized the first opportunity to impose forcible regime change there.

Khamenei will likely conclude that Gaddafi would still be in power if he had nuclear weapons.

And although that conclusion would be idiotically wrong – the West would long ago have invaded Libya to stop it from getting the bomb – Khamenei is going to think so anyway, making a deal between the US and Iran a lot more difficult.

So who’s in charge in Libya now? We don’t know.

Gaddafi wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that he was under assault from Islamists, though Islamists were probably not the main component of the opposition, and the so-called National Transitional Council (NTC).

Presumably, the NTC is being ferried by Nato in Tripoli today.

As Butch Cassidy once asked: “Who are these guys?”

I guess we’ll find out, if they don’t assassinate each other while fighting over power in the meantime.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter who controls Libya, except to Libyans.

» Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor for The Nation magazine; and is an investigative journalist in Alexandria, Virginia, specialising in politics and national security. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam; and is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones 

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