One of the most surreal experiences of my life — even apart from having a ruptured appendix and emergency surgery in a Gaddafi-government clinic — was a spring assignment in Libya to lecture on the Roman ruins there (which are quite impressive, since the neglect and ensuing 40 years of sand have, in counterintuitive fashion, been a protective cocoon from Gaddafi’s far greater ravages).
It was like no other country I have ever visited: wet garbage and sewage in the streets; an oil-exporter with massive pot-holes and no asphalt to fix them; almost every room, office, or hallway in Tripoli with peeling paint, exposed wiring, and something broken; the airport a disaster; almost every human action a possible violation of some government statute.
And, of course, Gaddafi’s picture was everywhere — sometimes as the protector of Islam, sometimes a sort of new-age Stalin, sometimes as the spiritual leader of black Africa, always presented with a nauseating green backdrop. In fact, books, shirts, even simple packaging was green. Citizens were terrified and talked in whispers, often relating some of the strangest rumors imaginable: past calls to burn all violins, past calls for every citizen to raise chickens, past calls for bonuses for marrying black African nationals. I arrived the day Lionel Ritchie was playing a 20th-anniversary anti-American concert commemorating Gaddafi’s heroic resistance to the Reagan bombing.
In sum, Gaddafi seems to have managed to destroy almost everything he touched: infrastructure, normal human interaction, the energy industry, the media — every aspect of life bore his destructive handprint.
So what does his apparent departure portend? Some random thoughts:
1) This is the first totalitarian, collectivist terror state to topple in this period of Middle Eastern unrest, which raises the question of whether others (e.g., Syria, Iran) might also face the same fate as Tunisia and Egypt, despite their willingness to shoot and kill indiscriminately and ban the international press.
2) Gaddafi hated the United States. Anti-American propaganda was spoon-fed to the population hourly (I remember watching the evenings newsreels’ ad nauseam depictions of U.S. “crimes” in Iraq). We are disliked by some countries’ protesters for cozying up to Saudi, Tunisian, Egyptian, and Pakistani authoritarians; does it necessarily follow that we will be liked by the opponents of anti-American authoritarians? Does anti-anti-Americanism translate into pro-Americanism?
I doubt it. In 2006, I heard constantly from my minders and others that Gaddafi was installed through some sort of U.S./Zionist plot to impoverish Libya. In general, if the Middle East becomes more ‘democratic’ (as in plebiscites without constitutions), we should brace, at least in the beginning, for a grassroots outpouring of anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Semitic venom, given what we have seen in various polls of popular opinion.
3) We were far less culpable than the Europeans in dealing with this monster — especially the British and Italians, who simply overlooked Libyans’ virtual imprisonment and looked for profits wherever possible.
4) The country has great natural beauty, a stunning coastline, a central location, untapped gas and oil reserves (Gaddafi’s incompetence often meant that oil was not so easy to extract and squander), incredible antiquities — and unlimited tourist and commercial potential should it ever embrace constitutional government.
5) Libyans seemed to me terrified of Egyptians, including the tens of thousands of illegal-alien Egyptians in their country. The oil fields in their lightly populated country are a little too near for their comfort to the border of the oil-needy, overpopulated Egyptian powerhouse. The oil-rich border regions between the two countries will be of interest in the days ahead.
6) What is the U.S. official policy in all this? Is there a consistent one? When it came to encouraging anti-theocratic protesters in Iran, our policy was not to meddle; then we meddled quite a lot in anti-authoritarian protests in Egypt. Cannot the administration at last state that it supports non-violent, gradual transitions to consensual government, institutionalized secular human rights, and an independent judiciary — regardless of whether the overthrown government was hard-right authoritarian or hard-left totalitarian or theocratic Islamist? Since all governments and figures in the Middle East seem transitory, it would be far better to establish a policy that is principled and constant, no matter the ideologies and authoritarians involved.
In other words, I think the Obama administration’s “reset” outreach to countries like Iran and Syria is moribund — as it should be. Oppressed peoples in nightmarish states do not care to hear of our efforts to reach out to their oppressors, multiculturalism or no multiculturalism.