You weren’t a saint for sure, but you weren’t the worst either. I can think of many others in your region, in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria for instance, who were more deserving of your bloody & brutal end – but you did not have the leverage that the leaders of those countries enjoyed. Perhaps if you had allowed Al Qaeda a small foothold somewhere deep in the desert where they could have posed a threat to the US, or if you shared a Border with Israel or had friends in the Saudi Royal family, you’d still be living and ruling the roost. But you only had oil – and lots of underground water – and that stuff is so easy to steal.
You started off well way back in September 1969, determined to erase Libya’s shameful and violent past as a toy of colonial powers and to make sure that the country’s oil wealth was used to benefit the largest number of people. There aren’t many oil states around the world that can make that claim.
You also stood beside other peoples who had suffered from colonialism. A lot of the time your choice of partners reflected well on you. You supported South Africa’s fight against apartheid at a time when major figures in the country I now live in who boast of their support for democracy, like Dick Cheney, opposed the release of Nelson Mandela from Robbin Island. At other times you made really bad choices, like Idi Amin for instance. But I could see where you were coming from.
Most observers think you overstepped the mark when you made Ronnie Reagan an enemy. That set you on the path to Lockerbie, UN sanctions and the near crippling of your economy. Then you let the West back in, smiled at the oil companies, opened the door to the IMF who liberalised your economy, impoverished your people and wrote the script that led to your downfall. Others say it was your sons, greedy for wealth and contemptuous of your people’s needs, that really let you down.
All this probably did play a big part in your tragedy but I suspect you made your big mistake at the start of your reign, when you took on Big Oil and won. What you did broke the stranglehold the Seven Sisters – Standard Oil of New Jersey, Standard Oil of New York (now Exxon), Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), Gulf Oil, Texaco, Royal Dutch Shell and Anlgo-Perisan (now BP) – held on the oil producing countries. By doing that you breathed life into OPEC and put spine into their backbone; almost single-handed, you opened the way for the 1973 oil embargo and the emergence of oil as a potent political weapon. You gave the Arab world real clout, a new self-respect and a pride in their power to bend and twist the economies of the powerful. I suspect the Western powers never forgave you for that and were always looking to get their revenge. This week they did. The bullets that killed you were fired by Libyans but the gun was put in their hands by NATO.
So what will your legacy be? This is where I think the verdict will be unkind to you. You had a deep strain of pragmatism and that helped you survive for over forty years but you ignored it when when you shouldn’t have. Long before the Benghazi rebels reached for their guns you should have introduced real political reforms, recognised that you had outstayed your welcome and acknowledged the pent up rage & frustration driving the Arab Spring.
Even if that had heralded the end of your family’s reign, you would have been able to retire gracefully, with sufficient wealth to sustain your entire family and with the thanks of a grateful people and the Arab world ringing in your ears. You spent much of your life trying to bring down the tyrants of Saudi Arabia, of the Gulf and North Africa. If you had bowed out in the way you should have, the example you set would have done so much more to undermine and dethrone them.
But you didn’t and instead you have paved the way for the recolonisation of Libya. The same powers you overthrew in 1969 – the French, the British, the Italians and the Americans – will now be swaggering back into Tripoli, this time determined not to let the past repeat itself and intent on persuading Libya’s new rulers to acknowledge the debt owed to them. For that, Muammar, history is unlikely to forgive you.
So farewell then al-Gaddafi. I will always have a special place in my heart for your country and what it did to turn my life around all those many years ago. But you should have gone when you had the chance.
This interview, screened by the estimable Real Network News, gives a foretaste of what may lie ahead for Libya. Watch and become depressed.
Hillary Clinton, who had predicted Gaddafi’s death during a trip to Libya a few days before, jokes about the dictator’s brutal end with a CBS reporter and implicitly claims credit for it.