On Point: Gadhafi's Cult Leaves Libya Bereft

by Austin Bay
March 2, 2011

Libyan rebels on the outskirts of Tripoli foreshadow thedemise of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's four decades of dictatorship.

But Gadhafi's not gone -- yet -- and the Libyan Civil War of2011 may or may not end even if he goes in a coffin or on a jet into Venezuelanexile.

In comparison, Tunisia's and Egypt's revolts were quiterestrained. Popular protests broke Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's Tunisian regime.Ben Ali essentially ran a family mob operation. Skimming billions was hisobjective. Can't spend it dead. When the Tunisian Army refused to back him, hefled to Saudi Arabia.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak raked in several billion, but he alsosaw himself as a soldier ensuring national stability. When his fellow generalsconvinced him he was triggering national instability, he left for a villa inSinai.

In Libya, however, anti-government demonstrations quicklyspiraled into bloody combat and atrocity.

Libya's dictatorship differs from those that ruled Tunisiaand Egypt. The difference begins with Gadhafi himself. Unlike Ben Ali andMubarak, Gadhafi is a megalomaniacal crank absolutely sold on his ownhistory-altering significance. After he overthrew Libya's monarchy in 1969, heannounced that he was a great leader but lacked a great nation. So he decidedto expand his power to a size more compatible with his ego by invadingneighbors and sowing chaos.

He invaded Chad. He supported terrorists and assassins wholaunched attacks in Africa and Europe. He sought chemical and nuclear weapons.Truly great leaders are also philosophical visionaries, so the colonel createdhis own ideology, a mad amalgam of pan-Arabism and socialism with a dash ofIslamic revolution.

He has suffered numerous defeats, but damaging his ego takesAmerican power. The 1986 U.S. air raid, following a Libyan terror bombing inGermany, scared him. When the U.S. toppled Saddam in 2003, he ended his nuclearweapons quest. Violent megalomaniacs who have successfully terrorized theirdomestic opposition for decades, however, don't go without a bloodbath. Saddamdidn't -- nor will Gadhafi.

Gadhafi's military reflects Gadhafi's commitment to himself.The core of his army is a 5,000-man regime-maintenance brigade that is loyal tohim, not Libya. In contrast, Tunisia's and Egypt's armed forces arefundamentally nationalist institutions led by military professionals. Many oftheir best officers work closely with civilian-controlled Western militaries.Even if they argue that their circumstances differ from France or the U.S.,they know democracy works. They have witnessed Spain's transition from Franco'sdictatorship to full-fledged membership in NATO and the European Union. Theyalso see Turkey as a model.

Nationalism, professionalism, Western military contacts anddevelopmental insight do not prevent corruption in the Tunisian and Egyptianarmed forces, but they do help explain why these organizations refused to fireon mass demonstrations by their own people.

In November 1979, Commentary Magazine published JeaneKirkpatrick's controversial essay, "Dictatorships and DoubleStandards." Kirkpatrick (who later served as U.S. ambassador to the UnitedNations) contrasted autocracies (e.g., shah of Iran) with totalitarian regimes(e.g., Fidel Castro).

Totalitarians sought to destroy social institutions andreplace them with ideological instruments; autocrats might seek to controltraditional institutions but not destroy them. Kirkpatrick wrote in a Cold Warcontext, where the Soviet Union was poised to replace a U.S.-friendly autocratwith a communist. That threat no longer exists, but in the Middle East,militant Islamists attempt to exploit institutional vacuums.

Kirkpatrick's essay still sparks debate. One of her corearguments, however, is pertinent to 2011's dramatic rebellions. People shapeevents, not vague historical forces or deterministic theories, and people whoseek to successfully transition their society from a dictatorship to ademocracy need reliable institutions that promote consensus, compromise and thepursuit of power by legal means.

So far, the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have fulfilledthat role, by supporting negotiations and a stable transition process leadingto national elections. Gadhafi's cult of megalomaniacal personality regime hasnothing immediately comparable.

With Egyptian, Tunisian and NATO assistance, defectingLibyan military commanders and their units may provide the skeleton of a stabilizinginstitution, especially if coast and desert tribal leaders will support it.Hope that NATO spies and special forces in contact with the rebels areforwarding this goal. 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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