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Posted on Mar 16, 2011 in War College

Libya’s Qaddafi: Staying Power

By Peter Suciu

March 10, 2011. Shrapnel flies through the air as a tank shell explodes near Libyan rebel fighters defending their last position against Muammar Qaddafi's loyalist forces at the north-central key Libyan oil town of Ras Lanuf. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Many a world leader has been painted by the likes of Saturday Night Live as a buffoon. TV shows, comedians and even political pundits regularly make caricatures out of dictators and despots. During his 40-year reign, this has regularly happened to Libya’s Muammar Muhammad al-Qaddafi – more commonly referred to as “Colonel Qaddafi.” Yet, the caricatures of the Libyan strongman who has managed to stay in power for four decades represent a true misunderstanding, and one the mainstream media should not be guilty of reinforcing.


This is not to say that Qaddafi deserves any sympathy, nor is this an apology for his crimes. This writer feels Qaddafi will likely get away with murder, and his crimes – that include state-sponsored terror – will largely go unpunished. The truth is also that he will be remembered more as a cartoon-like character rather than the dangerous dictator that he actually is. For this the media is much to blame, because too much has been focused on his erratic behavior, his almost surreal beliefs – notably that HIV is a “peaceful virus, not an aggressive virus” – and for his choice of attractive female bodyguards and demanding to sleep in a tent while on a visit to New York City to speak at the United Nations.

Muammar Qaddafi (Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Awalt)There is no doubt that he is eccentric in dress, actions and beliefs, but compare that to other world leaders over time and he’s really not all that bizarre. More importantly, other than a few “ceremonial” heads of states – notably Queen Elizabeth II – there are few heads of states living today that have had his longevity. When U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered the Libyan capital of Tripoli bombed in 1986 in response to Qaddafi’s terror campaign (which included the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that killed two American soldiers), the Libyan dictator had already been in power for nearly 17 years!

The media, comedians and the general public may mock this colorful character – and there is no doubt he is extremely colorful – yet, we should remember that he’s actually had quite the run. The United States was involved in the Vietnam War when the then junior officer staged a bloodless coup d’etat against King Idris. Qaddafi, who has been labeled the new “Che Guevara of the age,” actually did something that Che never did – succeeded and lived to enjoy the power he attained. Rather than dying as a rebel, Qaddafi seized power and remarkably kept it.

As a 27-year old he launched a campaign against Western imperialism, which saw the expulsion of the remaining Italian population from its former colony. As chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, he briefly took the title of Prime Minister of Libya and later Secretary General of the General People’s Congress in Libya, before finally assuming the title Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya – this last position he has held for more than 30 years (since March 2, 1979). These titles may suggest megalomania, but the man has survived.

Consider too that true megalomaniacs such as the French Emperor Napoleon (not to mention his grand nephew Louis Napoleon, later Napoleon III), Italy’s Benito Mussolini and of course Germany’s Adolf Hitler never reigned for as long as Qaddafi. Mussolini’s and Hitler’s years in power combined don’t equal 42 years! It may be easy to suggest that Qaddafi’s time has come as we see Libya heading into civil war, but the truth is that the man retained power by knowing what was within his grasp and what was not.

The only true wars of foreign aggression Qaddafi launched included those against neighboring Chad and Egypt. The latter was brief, while the former was really more of a prolonged border dispute with occasional exchanges of fire. Neither seriously threatened Qaddafi’s hold on power. The greater threat to Qaddafi was from western intervention due to his role in state sponsored terror, including his part in the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December of 1988. For most of the 1990s the nation was under diplomatic and economic sanctions, but with the West’s war on terror following the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, Qaddafi saw the writing on the wall and backed away from endorsing terror.

However, Qaddafi should also be remembered for the choice of friends that he has kept over the year. Past allies include Ugandan President Idi Amin, Central African Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa and Ethiopian Chairman of the Derg Mengistu Haile Mariam, and later Yugoslavia’s Slobadan Milošević. While these despots saw their time come and go, Qaddafi survived.

More recently Qaddafi has tried to make new friends and potential allies, and it has been reported that the Libyan leader met with Russian President Vladmir Putin in 2008 about a proposed Russian military base in Libya. Qaddafi has also reportedly developed a friendship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez with the two proposing a South Atlantic Treaty Organization to rival NATO! Thus the Libyan leader certainly knows how to rattle sabers, but unlike other dictators and despots he tends to speak loudly but lacks the big stick to back it up. But the difference is that unlike many of his contemporaries – as well as those from history – Qaddafi seems to do enough to remain in power, partially through a reign of terror (but never so much that there is any real threat to outsiders), and partially because his eccentric ways actually make him seem like a harmless buffoon.

This is perhaps the greatest problem. To the western media, and those who don’t delve deeper past those stories, he’s a clown dressed in eclectic attire. His sons are playboys, and his Amazonian Guard of supposed virgins who are handpicked by Qaddafi, just add to the allure and mystique that Qaddafi has cleverly created. The result is that the media in the days leading up to the most recent violence probably expected Qaddafi to crumble quickly, and while he may not have gone as quietly as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, it was widely believed he’d go. But like a cat with nine-lives, Qaddafi still lives. Now it will be interesting to see if he’s really the buffoon the media has painted him to be, and more importantly whether the media will realize that he’s not quite the clown of North Africa that he’s been painted to be.

Going for the Long Run as a Dictator
Qaddafi maybe facing a civil war, but he’s had a good run of 40 years. Consider that Hitler only ruled for 12 years, Mussolini for 23 years and Napoleon for 16 years (as First Consul and later Emperor). But a few others have had a good run. Here are some dictators who (somehow) managed to last:

Francisco Franco Bahamonde – more commonly known as Franco, could have been a footnote in history. But during the Spanish Civil War’s early days General José Sanjurjo took flight with too much baggage (literally) and crashed. The result is that Franco took over and led the Nationalists to victory, ruling Spain from 1939 to his death in 1975. Ironically, his place in history could be lost as the Spanish government in 2007 banned all public references to the Franco regime and removed all statues, street names and symbols associated with his rule.

António de Oliveira Salazar – the Prime Minister, and briefly President of the Republic of Portugal, who founded and led the Estado Novo (New State), was an authoritarian presiding over a proto-fascist government. Much like Franco, Salazar is remembered for (wisely) staying neutral during World War II.

Fidel Castro – the cigar-smoking leader of Cuba was the island nation’s Prime Minister from 1959 until 1976, a long rule in itself, but then he became President of Cuba from 1976 until 2008, when he handed power over to his younger brother Raul. Of course it is worth noting that the elder Castro remains First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, a title he’s held for 45 years since 1965.

Hồ Chí Minh – the leader of Vietnam might have only ruled (much of the time as a de facto ruler) for 24 years, but given that he was already 55 years old when he came to power it wasn’t a bad run.

Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi – the name certainly doesn’t roll of the tongue, but maybe his title does, Shah of Iran. He did die in exile, but before being ousted from power in 1979, he had ruled for 37 years and 138 days.

1 Comment

  1. It was not Qaddafi that said “HIV is a peaceful virus” – The person who said this was Luc Montagnier the man who discovered HIV.