Several years ago, after only a day and a half into my first trip to Libya, I was shocked at how wrong I had been about Moammar Qaddafi. I had always perceived him as a ridiculous figure and somehow didn’t quite realize how vicious he was even though I knew he sponsored legions of terrorists all over the world and killed many more dissidents in his own country. His buffoonishness hogged more of my mental space than his violence. Maybe he cleverly acted buffoonish on purpose for that very reason. I don’t know. But I do know it’s a lot easier to see the man for who he really is, or was, when you’re standing inside Libya than outside.
As one looked at the photographs and videos of Gaddafi’s capture that went so quickly around the world, it was hard to feel quite as overjoyed as his captors evidently were. For any civilized person the images of the former dictator wounded, beaten, bloodied and begging for his life were disturbing. I had to remind myself of the thousands of terrified, bloodied people stripped of their dignity, who must have begged for their lives in his dreadfuls prisons before they were murdered. (Apparently Gaddafi liked to broadcast videos of victims of his show trials urinating on themselves in fear before they were tortured or executed.)
Then there were the mass executions, the purges that followed the many attempted coups and revolts against him, the wars he fostered in Chad and elsewhere, the bloody but little-reported anti-African campaigns conducted by his Islamic Legion mercenaries.
Gaddafi was a genuine monster and mass murderer, of foreigners as well as of his own people. Unfortunately some of the aspects of his personality and dictatorial style that helped him retain power for all those decades also served to obscure just how vicious he was.
The clownishness and the comic-opera costumes in particular made it harder to see him as a tyrant every bit as savage and cruel as more conventional third world dictators. We Westerners from countries with genuine elections tend to put too much faith in appearances. (It is why so many people wrongly assume that Syria’s Assads are not as cruel or dangerous as dictators sporting military fatigues and sunglasses, or wearing an animal pelt across their shoulders.) Gaddafi was indeed a clown but he was of the evil, John Wayne Gacy kind that inhabit nightmares.
It is worth examining further why Gaddafi seemed less horrible than he really was, and how he managed to gull informed foreigners who should have known better. Partly this was because he may have been a clown but was far from a fool. But it was also a function of the way greedy, cynical or bigoted foreigners chose to see and present him.
One thinks especially of LSE director Howard Davies, and his staff who only decided that it was wrong to take Gaddafi’s money after the killing of protesters this February; the thousands who had already been killed or tortured in the Abu Salim prison were beneath their notice. Or Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, who was seduced by Gaddafi and his slick international socialite son Saif al-Islam (apparently still alive and at large) into heralding a “Tripoli Spring” when the regime was actually happily murdering dissidents like Fathi Eljahmi.
Presumably Whitson’s head was too stuffed with Zionist and American crimes, real or imagined, for her to see what was really going on in Tripoli, though it would be a mistake to underestimate the charm that Gaddafi could deploy when necessary. In recent years his efforts to maintain an image as a Ladies man – including the female bodyguard corps and his troop of East European nurses – seemed sad and ridiculous. He began his rule as a handsome, dashing young officer and soon found that he had a genuine knack for seducing earnest foreign women. Indeed, one of the reasons why the coverage of Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli tended to be so hostile and so credulous of Gaddafi’s claims about civilian casualties was because a key BBC correspondent on the ground fell under his romantic spell.
It my also be that Western leaders and their publics generally misunderstand and underestimate third world dictators. If a dictator rules a notoriously underdeveloped country or, like Gaddafi, dresses like Michael Jackson, takes a tent to foreign capitals, and pursues strange, egotistical hobbies like novel-writing, then foreign interlocutors assume that he (in the modern era it is always a he) is a kind of joke figure, brittle and easy to overthrow given a modicum of effort.
The truth is that anyone who can hold onto violently seized power for more than a year or two is probably a person of impressive unpleasant abilities, especially if they are ruling over a compulsively conspiratorial society accustomed to political violence. Tyranny is not easy. To do what Gaddafi did and remain in power for four decades required remarkable cunning, psychological acuity, political skill, emotional intelligence and cleverly applied ruthlessness. (It is why dictators like him sometimes find it laughably easy to manipulate or outmaneuver the heads of state of more powerful democratic countries: our elected politicians have not been schooled in an academy where failure means the firing squad or the gallows. )