Two Thoughts on Libya Nearing Liberation

26 August 2011


Now that the Libyan rebels are consolidating their hold on Tripoli and are assaulting what is assumed to be Gadhafi’s last stronghold in his hometown of Sirte, there is much speculation in the media about how the rebels will go about governing the country. There is already an accounting of the “winners” and “losers” in terms of who backed whom in the conflict.

The rebels are now sufficiently confident in their position, with growing international recognition of the National Transitional Council, some money beginning to flow into their coffers, and one fighter interviewed on the BBC saying that once they had mopped up Gadhafi loyalists in Libya, they could take their guns to Syria and help the opposition in their struggle there. The Syrians, for their part, have taken a page from the Libyan playbook and have reportedly created a national transitional council of their own. So Libya now becomes the contemporary model for removing a dictator who doesn’t want to be leave power just yet.

For my part, I would now like to hear the current opinion of Yoweri Kaguta, who wrote a long defense of Gadhafi in Foreign Policy magazine (The Qaddafi I Know), which I criticized in Humbug on Stilts. I wonder if Kaguta, like Chavez of Venezuela, is still defending Gadhafi.

So, two thoughts on the present situation (actually, the recent past and the near future, both of which are comprised by a liberal interpretation of the present) in Libya:

The Rixos Hotel Siege

It was to be expected that Gadhafi and his loyalists would fight for his secure facility at Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli, but one of the more surreal episodes to emerge from the Battle for Tripoli was the siege of the Rixos Hotel, where foreign journalists were staying. This was not accidental, but highlights the central feature of contemporary dictatorships: control of information.

Gadhafi’s loyalists defended their control over the Rixos Hotel about as long and as strenuously as they defended their control over the Bab al-Aziziya complex. In order to attempt to maintain control over the flow of information about the country and its conflict, the regime attempted to control the journalists as long as they can. The journalists make this possible my mostly staying at the same (comfortable) hotel, and obediently attending press conferences exclusively consisting of representatives of the regime.

This is a relatively unsophisticated form of information control, especially when we compare it to, for example, the Great Firewall of China (meticulously constructed by US technology companies), but in so far as it represents the dying gasp of a regime desperately but ineffectually attempting to hang on to its accustomed control of events, even while events are spinning out of control, it is a lesson — ought to be a lesson — to us all. We saw similar scenes in Iraq, with Saddam Hussein’s regime attempting to get its story out to the international media

These dictators with their information control regimes have learned the lesson of the Tet Offensive, when a tactical defeat became a strategic and political victory because of the impression that it made on the news-consuming public, but they have not yet learned the lessons of the newest social media technology, which can flood the internet with more information that even the most diligent censors can delete. This was one of the reasons that the Chinese attempt to control the media reporting of the high speed train crash was a failure.

In any case, the siege of journalists’ hotels is something to watch for in the decline and fall of dictators in the future.

Gadhafi’s Trial

If Gadhafi is captured alive by the rebels, he is likely to be put on trial. The International Criminal Court in The Hague already has charges prepared and a cell waiting for Gadhafi, but the rebels have indicated that they would prefer to put Gadhafi on trial in Libya. As a possible focal point for national catharsis, this could be a good thing, but not necessarily so.

Few people doubted the Saddam Hussein was innocent of terrible crimes against his own people, but his trial in Iraq after his capture did not become a focal point of national catharsis, purgation, reconciliation, and healing. His traditional clients continued to defend him, his enemies wanted him out of the picture, and no enlightenment came from any revelations of the trial. A trial of this sort would benefit no one, but it is difficult to guess exactly how a court proceeding would procede.

I speculated on Gadhafi’s possible course of action during his endgame in What will Gadhafi do when he goes to ground? Recently in The Fall of Tripoli… Almost I remarked that Gadhafi definitely lies on the absurd side of the dictatorial continuum of absurdity and brutality. Gadhafi likes to talk, likes to hold forth on this vision, and likes to be in the media.

In so far as Gadhafi is a talker who likes the limelight, it is easy to predict that he would bend every effort to dominate his trial (really, I should say that he would attempt to hijack his trial) and to turn it into a public platform from which he would evangelize the Gadhafi “vision” for Libya. Since it is likely that he really believes that “his” people love him, he might even imagine that if he can just get himself in front of enough television cameras for a sufficient period of time, he will bring his countrymen around to once again recognize his rule over Libya. Of course, I don’t believe that, and I doubt that few outside Gadhafi’s “inner circle” believe that, but one can only come to understand dictators by coming to an understanding of self-deception, which underlies a dictator’s every calculation.

It would actually be “better” for Libya if Gadhafi took a suicide pill, but I doubt he will do this. Like many self-deluded and power-hungry men, he will hang on as long as he can. Perhaps, like Idi Amin, he will end up in Saudi Arabia, where is perhaps the second best thing for Libya. The Saudis somehow managed to keep Amin in line after that bloody and brutal dictator ended up as their guest after he nearly destroyed Uganda. So if the Saudis can shelter the likes of Amin, who definitely fell on the brutal side of the absurdity/brutality continuum of dictators, they can certainly shelter Gadhafi, on the absurd side of the same continuum. But could they keep his quiet? That is another question entirely.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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