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Libya's Quixotic Despot Meets His End

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
October 20, 2011

Libya's Quixotic Despot Meets His End - libyas-quixotic-despot-meets-his-end


The news of Muammar al-Qaddafi's death will generate its own share of headlines and obituaries. However, the stark aspect of his four-decades of despotic rule is how little impact he will have on the future of Libya. Qaddafi was a product of post-colonial nationalism, and the Arab military class' quest to reclaim the Middle East from complacent and corrupt monarchical order.

He was a man of expansive ambition, seeing himself as the heir to Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser. Along these lines, he sought to articulate his own ideological vision, the Third Universal Theory, which was an incongruous amalgamation of Arab nationalism, Islamism and socialism. The ideology never took root, and Qaddafi never managed to replace the charismatic Nasser as the Arab world's foremost ruler.

Libya was too distant from the heart of Arab politics and Qaddafi too eccentric and volatile to be invested with a leadership role in a region that was looking to adjust itself in the global community, as opposed to rebel against its norms. With ample oil wealth at his disposal, Qaddafi began his assault on the international system, allying himself with opposition forces, secessionist movements and terrorist organizations without an obvious political agenda who shared his animus toward the West. And terrorism proved his undoing.

Qaddafi ushered in the twenty-first century by suing for peace. Decades of sanctions and ostracism had weakened his grip on power so much that he forswore terrorism as an instrument of his statecraft and cleansed himself of his weapons of mass destruction. In the past decade, he often retreated within himself, producing meandering philosophical tracts while his government sought to rationalize his irrational order.

Once the Arab Spring descended on his penal colony, the world took notice of his brutality and his preference for violence as chief arbiter of politics. The scope of Qaddafi's isolation became obvious when the entire international community united behind his ouster.

In the end, Libya was always too small and its population too passive for Qaddafi. At first Libyans were indifferent to his rule. Later, as the costs of his adventurism mounted, they became hostile to their leader and rejected his revolution. Freed of his burdensome shadow, Libyans have a chance to be at peace with each other, and at ease with their region.

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