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The End of a Delusion

22 October 2011

3:09 PM

22 October 2011

3:09 PM

The sight of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi blood-stained and bewildered, pulled around by a
crowd in the final moments of his life is not a sight that will cause much pity. For more than four decades he had none for those Libyans whom he repressed and killed — anymore than he had
for the victims on Pan Am Flight 103, his other multiple acts of terrorism, or his pointless and bloody interventions across Africa.

Yet there is something pitiful about it: perhaps most obviously because watching his end is to watch the end of a delusion. Even more than Saddam Hussein crawling out of a hole in the ground and
saying that he wanted to negotiate, the sight of Gaddafi coming out of a soil-pipe armed with a golden gun seems the perfect example of reality catching up with the autocrat. And though it is
undeniable that first and foremost Gaddafi was bad quite simply because he was bad, this is a good moment to consider whether there was anything which the international community, and countries
like this one, could have done better.

Anyone who was curious about Gaddafi could learn most of what they needed to know by trying to read his near-unreadable Green Book. It includes an extended digression away from the subject of
agriculture in which Gaddafi comes to the conclusion that men do not menstruate, nor do they breastfeed children, and that this is a difference between men and women.

The Green Book is useful for understanding Gaddafi because it contains the characteristic that always sat alongside his brutality: his silliness. Even up to the end, that silliness was forever in
danger of dominating international attitudes towards him. Who could forget the impromptu press conference earlier this year in which he denied that he had fled the country: leaning out of a
golf-buggy, umbrella in hand? Or the rambling speeches at the UN which on one recent occasion led to a translator breaking-down, complaining particularly that it was unclear which parts of the
speech Gaddafi meant to address to the hall and which were him talking to himself?

The silliness was legendary. But behind it, and far more important than it, was a deadly delusion. And here was the problem for the international community. At any time, throughout his four decades
of dictatorship, Gaddafi always managed to find some leader somewhere, and on occasion several, willing to hail him as the great leader of his time, a continent-wide King or a Caliph, destined
alternately to unite Africa or revive the Caliphate. Across Africa, and as far away as Pakistan, there were those who would acclaim him and regard him in the manner he clearly felt to be his due.
What they wanted of course was the cash.


For the same reason Gaddafi also found some receptive audiences in the West — and never more-so than in recent years. The bloodshed of the last year has at least reminded people that Gaddafi
was not merely a clown. But the pandering to Gaddafi’s whims cannot but have helped prolong his view of himself and so prolong the misery through which he put his people.

When the Blair government decided to restore relations with Libya they did it for decent reasons. But the manner and extent of the un-freezing of relations — the sending of dignitaries to
meet him and so on — went far too far. When the international community sat through his rambling multi-hour-long speeches at the UN, and world leaders allowed him to pitch his tent on their
lawns, the misconception that there were different rules for him — that he was a case apart — can only have hardened.

Perhaps one occasion should particularly epitomise this. Only last December, Gaddafi made a live video appearance in London at the London
School of Economics (LSE). Students and academics at that institution (incidentally a bastion of academic attempts to boycott Israel) had a chance to ask some questions of Gaddafi. They behaved
miserably.

Gaddafi was introduced by Alia Brahimi, a Research Fellow at LSE. Grinning throughout, she presented Gaddafi to the auditorium saying ‘You are most welcome here Colonel Gaddafi’. She
referred to him as ‘Brother Leader’ and described him as ‘the world’s longest serving national leader’. And she read a message from the then head of the LSE, Howard
Davies, who said that Gaddafi was ‘most welcome’ at the LSE and that the LSE was ‘pleased’ to be able to help train Libyan officials and ‘very much hopes’ that
the relationship can continue. It is worth remembering that these were not professors and students sitting in Libya forced to pay these dues to the dictator. They were free people in a free society
doing this voluntarily.

At the end of the lecture Brahimi presented Gaddafi with an LSE baseball cap, telling the ‘Brother Leader’ that he is in ‘good company’ since Bill Clinton, ‘your
friend’ Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan also have them. She thanked the ‘Brother Leader’ for ‘grappling’ with the questions from the floor. Gaddafi thanks the students
for their ‘very insightful questions’, and was ‘honoured and pleased’ to have been hosted there, discussing questions that would lead to ‘world peace’. He then
thanked the ‘excellent management of the university’.

Now Howard Davies has since resigned from the LSE over the scandal of donations from the Gaddafi family. But it is worth wondering whether governments and institutions in the West like the LSE did
more damage than anybody could previously have imagined. If you had the view of yourself that Gaddafi had, what a boon, what a bonus, to realise that even in London — a city whose residents
you had on occasion killed — even there you were received with honour and given only soft-ball questions from academics and students who are meant to pride themselves on their
independent-mindedness.  Would it not all confirm what you had always thought? That you, Gaddafi, were truly loved and that the world was fortunate to have you and your leadership?

The Italian author and journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed Gaddafi in 1979. The extraordinary interview (recently reissued by Rizzoli in Interviews with History and Conversations with
Power
) should tell most people what they would need to know about him. It finishes with him explaining how his Green Book will change the world and protect the Libyan people. He is yelling:

‘The Green Book is the new Gospel! The Gospel of the future, the new age! The Green Book is the world! In the beginning there was the word, say the Gospels. The Green Book is the word,
my word! A word from my book can destroy the world, it can make the world explode! A word from my book can redeem the world and change the value of things. Their weight. Their volume. Everywhere
and always! Because I am the Gospel. I am the Gospel.’

He repeats this for last refrain for a while before collapsing, pale and sweaty.

There will be dictators in the future. Some may be as deadly and perhaps even as silly as Gaddafi. Now that we have seen his end we can see even clearer that there never was much to learn from him.
But it would be proper for there to be some reflection in countries like ours over how we treat such tyrants when we meet them in the future.


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