Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 9-Middle East- Khomeini and Qaddafi
Middle East: Khomeini and Qaddafi
The eyes of millions of Iranians were on the Air France plane as it taxied to a stop at
Mahrabad Airport on February 1, 1979. Out stepped an elderly black-clad clergyman.
Thousands of his supporters kept the crowd under control as it chanted allegiance. It was
an outpouring of political passion rarely equated in modern history. The Shah had just
fled the country, marking the end of the 2,500-year-old Iranian monarchy. Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini had returned home from Paris to establish the Islamic Republic.
Not content merely to make a revolution and rule their own countries, Khomeini
and Libya’s Colonel Muammar al Qaddafi sought a new world order. This wider
ambition often overshadowed the fact, impressive enough in itself, that they had achieved
total power at home. The relationship between internal triumph and external
aggressiveness rested on two ideas in the minds of these often dissimilar dictators: a
belief that their victory against all odds proved their cause was divinely inspired or
ideologically correct and the conviction that Islamic fundamentalism or a Green
Revolution in one country was under all-out attack from foreign powers.
The young colonel and the aged cleric had very different political philosophies,
but they had much more in common than first met the eye. Their air of recklessness and
apparent fanaticism could not hide a keen sense of the limit of acceptable risk, although
their range went beyond that of countrymen and colleagues. The ability to be so daring
and still survive added to their legends. Each had an inborn sense of drama and a
personality able to inspire great loyalty, persuading people to follow him and to persecute
those who would not. Both had great organizational ability.
In short, each had a split personality combining tough realism and dreamy
idealism. They were true believers whose sincerity inspired others and clever operators
whose coldly calculating minds saved them from being naïve idealists. This duality is a
key secret of the most effective modern dictators who can base themselves on easily
recognizable, emotionally powerful ideas close to their audience’s hearts-Arab
nationalism, national dignity, indigenous culture, Islam-at the same as they develop
something new and different enough to galvanize these sentiments into action by credibly
promising their fulfillment.
Thus, while Qaddafi claims to he a follower of Nasser, his thinking and behavior
are his own. Libya has little of Egypt’s prestige and only one-twentieth of its population;
Qaddafi must cope with a distinctive set of problems. Equally, Khomeini’s claim that he
is only copying the early Islamic polity of 1,200 years ago is even more misleading.
Muhammad did not fly in from Paris on a jet plane, mesmerize the nation via television
and radio broadcasts, or finance his state on the international oil market.
Another paradox about the rise of Qaddafi and Khomeini is that their revolutions
flourished from the very failure and degeneration of their traditions. Qaddafi came on the
scene when the principle of unity was being treated with increasing cynicism by other
Arab regimes. Independence and Arab socialism had not lived up to expectations.
Nasser’s manipulation of Arab nationalism as an instrument of Egyptian national interest
raised suspicions; Cairo’s failure to promote Arab unity increased skepticism.
Khomeini’s revolution was made possible by a rapid social transformation that had been
pushing Islam into an increasingly smaller corner of Iranian life. The fact that the clergy
was besieged by the Shah-instituted changes yet was seen as maintaining its purity in an
otherwise corrupted society was Islam’s greatest asset. In the Arab world Islamic
fundamentalism had suffered greatly by being seen in the 1950s as a tool of reaction
against the rising wave of Arab nationalism. Khomeini refashioned it as a revolutionary
There is an additional clue in the demonstrative, even psychologically insecure
boasting of these two regimes. Iran and Libya were latecomers and loners. Lacking
anything equivalent to Arab nationalism, Iran had no strong ideology to compete with
Islam as an alternative to the Shah’s traditional dictatorship. The Shah’s efforts to
promote Iranian nationalism had never taken root, and his regime had also kept Iranians
insulated from the ideas of Marxism and radical, secularist nationalism that had gained
hegemony among the Arabs and elsewhere in the Third World. Thus, Iranians were
neither disillusioned with the untried force of Islam nor sufficiently attracted by some
Libya gained independence later than the core Arab states and only experienced
secondhand the tumultuous course of Arab nationalist politics during the 1940s, 1950s,
and 1960s. Consequently, it never fully comprehended the lowered expectations of other
Arab countries after Nasser’s failures, defeats by Israel, and the growing fragmentation in
the Arab world. Kept in a pristine state by their own traditional dictatorships, Libya and
Iran emerged after their revolutions with all the zeal of the newly converted. They
peddled as universal ideologies and movements that were really the particular products of
their own distinctive histories and societies. Qaddafi, outwardly a Pan-Arabist, actually
functioned as a Libyan nationalist conducting a particularly Libyan revolution. Similarly,
although Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalism rejects Iranian nationalism, he, too, had a
truly national function and appeal.
Spreading the revolution has been a major priority of both Khomeini and Qaddafi.
Despite periodic Western hysteria about alleged waves of Islamic fundamentalist revolt
or Libyan domination of neighbors, the foreign policy record of Libya and Islamic Iran is
one of unbroken failure. Miscalculations were due to their erroneous view of all
opposition as U.S.-inspired, their misreading of international politics, and their
underestimation of the strength of local nationalism. It is not so easy to spread revolution.
Tunisia, Morocco, Chad, Sudan, and Egypt all rejected Qaddafi’s threats, bribes, and
covert operations. His behavior made him unpopular in the Organization of African Unity
and a laughingstock in Arab circles. His supporters were almost completely restricted to
isolated groups that he rented with oil earnings. If the Arab states publicly opposed any
Western intervention to overthrow Qaddafi, it was only a matter of regional political
etiquette and concern that such an event could create a precedent for actions against
themselves. One might conclude that a prophet was without honor except in his own
country. This proverb certainly fitted Qaddafi’s situation.
Iran’s revolution briefly inspired a wide range of Islamic fundamentalist
movements, but most of its direct followers, too, were leased. Loyalty to Tehran was
limited to a minority of Shiite Muslims and even among them primarily to people of
Persian descent. When Iran began to have some influence among militant Shiites in
Lebanon, Syria moved quickly to counter this drive, supporting the far larger Al-Amal
group. In Iraq Saddam Hussein used repression and material benefits to ensure that his
large Shiite population did not support Khomeini in the Iran-Iraq War.
This is why their appeal abroad is limited. When Qaddafi told an audience of
Egyptian women in Cairo about their impending lower status in a new, merged Egypt-
Libya, they were aghast. When merger is suggested to Syrian leaders, they remember the
debacle of the 1958-1961 Syria-Egypt union, which President Assad saw firsthand. When
an all-out assault against Israel is demanded, the Egyptians and Jordanians contemplate
their costly defeats in previous wars. Similarly, most Iraqis rejected Khomeini’s bid to
turn them into Islamic fundamentalists, considering this a step backward. Overseas the
political missionary efforts and theatrical effects of Khorneini and Qaddafi often seem
clownish because they are out of touch with their own region even as they project valuesmaximalist
Arab nationalism in Qaddafi’s case; pious Islam in Khomeini’s case–which
their neighbors must accept in public but have ambiguous feelings about in private.
Qaddafi and Khorneini are confused and frustrated by failures that are not supposed to
happen. Khomeini complains, “We have lost faith in many of the so-called Islamic
countries, and we do not have any hope of being able to guide them unless God Almighty
brings about a change in them.”
Yet this very friction with other states and peoples that should theoretically
welcome them as liberators also reveals their essentially national characters. Qaddafi and
Khomeini are in step with their own countries’ political and psychological needs. Libya is
led by a man from a tent-dwelling pastoral nomadic tribe-the stereotype of Arabs in the
West but the only Arab leader from such a background. Having barely achieved its own
unity, Libya is more willing than better-established societies to immerse its weak identity
within the wider Arab world. Qaddafi views his success in welding together Libya as a
model of how easily the Arabs could unite. Libyans are flattered by the idea that they
could leap so quickly from being the most backward Arab state to becoming a regional,
even a world leader. Having been subjected to the especially brutal colonialism of Fascist
Italy, Libyan political culture views the West as irredeemably rapacious. Given a more
limited and negative contact with Western culture, Libyans reject it more thoroughly and
see this attitude as self-evident. Having achieved quick, painless wealth through oil at the
very moment of their revolution, they underestimate the difficulty of development and
believe that determination and ideological steadfastness will solve all problems.
Khomeini warned continually about foreign threats and sincerely believed that
aggression and subversion were taking Functionally, however, these positions reinforced
the unity of the elite and the allegiance of the populace. Some of Khomeini’s specific
citations of Western misdeeds and double standards were accurate; others were
imaginary. His view of the West was secondhand at best, replete with remarkable
misconceptions, and he grossly overestimated U.S. influence on the Shah. But right or
wrong, it was a conception of the world that many other Iranians-and people elsewhere in
the Third World-were willing to accept from their leaders.
Both Khomeini and Qaddafi consistently followed a pattern which corresponds to
a timeworn anecdote. A man is standing on the sidewalk, snapping his fingers over and
over again. A bystander comes up and asks him to explain this behavor.
“I’m snapping my fingers to keep the elephants away”, replies the first man.
“But there aren’t any elephants within thousands of miles of here!” exclaims the
“‘You see!” triumphantly answers the finger snapper. “It works!”
The overbearing interference of a great power is not merely an imaginary figment
in the mind of a Khomeini or a Qaddafi. Each of them can cite examples from his
country’s history on this point. “So much adverse propaganda has been spread by foreign
sources for hundreds of years,” Khomeini said on the seventh anniversary of the
revolution in February 1986, “it has made all of us believe that it is impossible to resist
these powers…. Whenever anything happened it would suffice for one foreigner serving
in that country to say that such things would not happen and that would he it…. If, for
instance, the British ambassador were to say something, even the sultan would not go
Yet the two charismatic dictators repeatedly and deliberately baited the United
States: Khomeini by seizing American hostages , Qaddafi by his open sponsorship of
terrorism. They each proclaimed that the United States was doing everything possible to
subvert their regimes and predicted repeatedly that an American invasion would soon
take place. But when the United States acted more moderately or when the alleged
subversion did not overthrow them, the two leaders boasted that their defiance had
neutralized U.S. plans and transformed a superpower into a paper tiger. When the United
States did bomb Libya in retaliation for its aid to terrorism, Qaddafi rallied nationalist
What makes this tactic particularly potent is that even top colleagues trembled at
the dangers only to have their faith in the leader’s genius reinforced when the feared
retribution did not come. America’s ability to overturn so easily the nationalist
Mohammed Mossadegh government in 1953 had convinced many Iranian political
figures that it would never “allow” the fundamentalists to take power or remain in office.
In Bani Sadr’s words, a whole generation feared that the revolution could fail. After all,
Iran was the kind of country where high officials in the Islamic regime would routinely
denounce the United States in meetings with American diplomats and then request U.S.
visas for their friends.
Khomeini tried to break this inferiority complex, saying repeatedly “Our youth
should be confident that America cannot do a damn thing.” In reality, President Carter
spent the months after the Iranian Revolution trying to patch up relations with
Khomeini’s Iran. During the hostage crisis he only reluctantly dispatched an abortive
rescue mission when negotiations failed, and even then it was purely aimed at saving the
kidnapped Americans. Thus, the hostage seizure was justified in the first place by a
perceived American threat; the failure of that alleged threat to materialize after the
hostage taking was portrayed by Khomeini as an Iranian victory. America, though still
dangerous, had been defeated. Washington’s failure to fit the aggressive, imperialistic
image painted by Khomeini did not lead Iranians to question the whole theory of U.S.
conspiracy. Instead, they attributed the American lack of success to Khomeini’s
effectiveness in anticipating and countering it.
If Iran blamed all prerevolutionary problems on the United States, Qaddafi took
the same attitude on the Arab world’s difficulties. No American leader would have been
inflamed by Qaddafi’s domestic activities in the absence of his foreign adventures.
Nevertheless, the dictator could demonstrate his own power by keeping off the elephants.
Qaddafi, like Khomeini, argued that if other leaders only acted as he did, the illusory
bonds of their states would drop away. And the failure of other leaders to take a similar
revolutionary attitude only proved that they were hopeless American puppets.
While Islamic Iran seems a unique, exotic state, an examination of its workings
reveals adherence to a worldwide pattern of modern dictatorship. Most important is the
rule of a charismatic leader. The long-lived ayatollah himself is a figure of such
dimensions that if it were not so alien to his religious belief, he could be called a political
demigod. Architect and goad of the revolution, he seems to have almost single-handedly
directed the demolition of the Shah’s seemingly all-powerful regime. When others
believed it impossible to overthrow the Shah and that the Americans would not allow the
fundamentalists to gain power, Khomeini remained resolute. He enjoyed the support of
massive crowds willing to risk their lives in Iran’s streets and the support of skillful
organizers (many of them also clerics). By directing and inspiring these people,
Khomeini’s uncompromising willpower ensured the revolution’s success and Islamic
The 1978-1979 Iranian Revolution was not only a revolt against the Shah’s
modernization and development program but also an upsurge of forces and attitudes
created by those very same policies. The rise of both Khomeini and Qaddafi challenges
the widely held Western view that the Third World would change in a linear progression
from “traditional” to “modern” society. The former represented historical customs and
attitudes-the primacy of family and clan ties, rural and subsistence agriculture, hereditary
status, and a strong religious orientation-that would inevitably give way before the forces
of industry, improved communications and transport, science and secularism. The growth
of new classes, ideas, and institutions would change the form of government. The West
expected a trend toward democracy while Soviet bloc ideologists predicted the spread of
communism. Both schools of thought arose out of an intrinsic belief in technological
As oil revenues built up, particularly after the 1973 petroleum price increases, the
Shah fulfilled long-held ambitions and plunged into gigantic economic and military
spending programs. Billions of dollars of new arms were purchased, Western
manufactured products and machinery poured into the country, extensive construction
projects were begun, and tens of thousands of Iranians studied abroad. The Shah and his
associates wanted to do everything at once.
By the late 1970s, however, their plans faced three basic problems. First, while
many Iranians benefited from these programs or were intimidated into silence, few felt
strong loyalty to the regime. Some groups were left behind in the drive for progress;
others were unable to compete with Western imports or subsidized court favorites who
monopolized the fruits of government contracts and corruption. The Shah’s perhaps
inevitable political failure was not so much an absence of progress toward democracy as
an equal inability to transform himself into a modern dictator. Efforts to institute a White
Revolution or to establish a single party turned into public relations campaigns largely
aimed at the outside world.
Second, by the late 1970s, as the government overspent its revenue, Iran went into
a recession. Projects were cut back, unemployment rose, and inflation became serious.
Wages in the construction industry-the main source of jobs for the unskilled-fell by as
much as 30 percent. University graduates found few opportunities. To save money, the
government reduced subsidies of the religious establishment from $80 million to $30
million a year. Thus, the Shah’s rule made new enemies by appearing incompetent and
unable to meet the people’s needs–some of which the regime itself had created.
Third, the modernization process uprooted the old society and left the people
without a psychological anchor. Peasants moving from countryside to city found their
new environment incomprehensible. The rules of the new urban society, increasingly
secular, technological, and Westernized, were contrary to what they had been taught was
right and just. The vacuum demanded fresh ideas, preferably rooted in familiar symbols
and values, to explain what was going wrong in the country and how it could be put on
the right track.
In these circumstances Khomeini and his followers provided the most acceptable
answers. They reinterpreted Islam, the central element in the popular world view, to
explain the problem and the solution. The problem was defined as “Westoxification,” an
excess of foreign influence poisoning Iranian society and manifesting itself through an
unpatriotic regime. The solution Khomeini proffered was a clergy-led Islamic republic.
By offering this analysis and remedy, Khomeini himself was an innovator whose
ideology conflicted with historic Iranian Islamic thought. He had always been an
ideologue and a political mullah rather than a scholar explicating Islamic law and
practice. There was no real tradition in Iranian Islam for clerical rule. After the revolution
Khomeini’s followers admitted that their views represented a sharp break with the past.
As a 1985 editorial in the proregime newspaper Kayhan explained, “Mainstream Islam
had developed a sense of inherent and almost unalterable inferiority before the West.”
Ideas and attitudes toward life were imported wholesale because they were seen as “items
of universally valid knowledge.” But Khomeini, and Qaddafi for that matter, tried to
show how Islam could present its own alternative and indigenous version of “modern”
society. In the same manner other modern dictators tried to produce their own national
solutions to these problems.
Khomeini was consciously seeking to institute a dramatically new order in Iran.
He sought an “inner revolution of the nation,” not just “a transfer of power from one hand
to another without any change in the condition of the people.” It would he a government
that came from the masses-”whose prime minister was a bazaar tradesman, whose
officials were farmers”–and that listened to their demands. Such a populist, even
representative dictatorship had nothing in common with traditional regimes. Khomeini
and Qaddafi are not antimodern throwbacks to some earlier century. They adapt
contemporary ideas for their own purposes. Their movements succeed because they
embody an acceptable approach to the problems of modernization. Khomeini sought to
use rather than suppress altogether radio, television, films, and recordings–all objects of
horror to believing Muslims fifty years ago. Similarly, Qaddafi not only avidly sought
the most modern weapons but also employed contemporary public relations techniques to
a degree equal to that of any American politician. Khomeini and Qaddafi were wagering
that technology is value-neutral, that a radio can broadcast readings from the Koran just
as easily as it can be used to play rock music.
While charisma often seems like a magical quality, it is also a marketable one.
The leader is popularized by his picture’s constant appearance on billboards, on posters,
in newspapers, and on television. He is praised in the media and the schools; his
sympathy and concern for the common people are communicated in meetings and
speeches. Success, of course, is not automatic-the Shah tried many of these techniques as
well-but must also arise from the content of the leader’s ideology and policies as well as
his advantage in being new, lacking responsibility for the past and existing society.
Khomeini uses his power to be more of an arbitrator and guide than a ruler. No
factional dispute can tear the regime apart because everyone knows that Khomeini’s word
is final. As velayat-e faqih, an office he wrote into the new constitution and one of
questionable theological legitirnacy, Khomeini is the supreme authority on all social,
political, and religious matters. He dictates overall policy while the government hierarchy
takes care of daily decision making.
The Islamic regime’s survival was never left to Khomeini’s personal popularity
alone. The government’s power was institutionalized to a remarkable extent through a
wide variety of organizations and groups to maintain the Islamic Republic. In fact, while
the whole structure had an Islamic flavor, its underpinnings were typical of modern
dictatorship. There were neighborhood Komitehs, reminiscent of equivalent local
watchdogs in Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya, and Ethiopia. To some extent the network of loyal
local clerics replaced that of a deeply rooted party. The mosques became centers for
military recruitment, administration of the rationing system, indoctrination, and control.
The regime’s Islamic Republican party (IRP), more a collection of factions claiming
allegiance to Khomeini than a centralized cadre party, still performed the function of
organizing supporters and choosing leaders.
Motivated by idealism, opportunism, or even conformity, many young people of
varied social backgrounds continue to support passionately the new order. The regime
also retains strong loyalty from the Islamic movement’s historical backbone-poor urban
slum dwellers who are financially subsidized with Iran’s petroleum earnings and who
gain a sense of self-importance and identity from the government’s propaganda. A new
web of agencies-from state-financed charitable foundations to neighborhood committeesprovides
benefits to Iran’s poor.
Many of the approximately 80,000 Iranian clerics are active as local political
agents of the IRP. Mullahs serve as president and as speaker of parliament and hold about
half the seats in the legislature. By constitutional provision, they occupy six of twelve
positions on the Council of Guardians, which can veto parliament passed laws, and
dominate the Assembly of Experts, which chose another cleric, Ayatollah Hussein Ali
Montazeri, to be Khomeini’s successor as velayat-e faqih. Many mosques have their own
sources of income. Mass-membership Islamic Associations pervade the villages and
Every province and city has a cleric who serves as Khomeini’s personal
representative. Mullahs lead the Crusade for Reconstruction, which organizes volunteers
for building roads, schools, and houses (its achievements are among the revolution’s
proudest boasts), and the Foundation of the Dispossessed, a powerful money-disbursing
agency. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance, headed by a cleric, controls censorship and
publishing, and local mosques give clearances to students wishing to attend a university.
Political loyalty is a major criterion in determining who can teach or study in higher
educational institutions. Such a large apparatus will not be easily dismantled or
The IRP clergy also form a coherent group of men united by long collaboration,
friendships, and even marriage. Montazeri studied under Khomeini in the 1940s and later
served as the exiled leader’s personal representative in Iran. President Sayyed Ali
Khamenei, who is also general secretary of the IRP, was a student of Khomeini’s as well.
Other key leaders were prominent supporters of Khomeini before and during the
revolution. Thus, the revolutionary clerics should not be seen primarily as theologians but
as a political group analogous to Syria’s Alawite-Baathist officers or Iraq’s Sunni-Tikriti-
Baathists. Khomeini can depend on a loyal in-group of old associates who will stick
together against all outsiders.
The forces of repression are no less organized than those of leadership and of
mobilization, The Shah’s secret police (SAVAK) was refurbished, renamed, and
streamlined. Even though it retained some of the Shah-era personnel, the institution was
relegitimatized. Street gangs of loosely organized Hizbollah, the party of God, which are
also directed by some of Khomeini’s lieutenants, strong-armed opponents, broke up
opposition rallies, and harassed women who did not properly cover up, paralleled the
Nicaraguan Sandinistas’ turbas, the Syrian special militias, the youth associations of
many African ruling parties, and.other groups practicing what was purported to he
The officer corps was thoroughly and repeatedly purged after the revolution.
Senior officers were retired, imprisoned, executed or fled the country. Those officers who
remained owed their rapid promotions to the new government. The regime organized its
own parallel military establishment, the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), with its own
naval and armored units. The government also placed Islamic political commissars in
regular military units to check on and intensify loyalty.
Khomeini’s disdain for traditional dictatorship, under which “people could not
reach the government” and officials “relied on the power of the bayonet,” was reflected
by his emphasis on mass organizations, the integrity of leaders, and repeated elections for
president and parliament. Although only proregime candidates could run, the regime
clearly had confidence in its broad base of support. The parliament has been no mere
rubber stamp, fiercely debating and sometimes rejecting government policies and
nominations for high offices. Disputes resulted from differing views on several major
issues. The clergy and IRP were divided between those favoring state control of industry
and distribution of land to smallholders and those defending the existing property
There were, of course, many dissatisfied groups. A great deal of land was
distributed to or seized by-peasants in the revolution’s aftermath, but the Islamic
government failed to establish a national land reform policy. Peasants also lost income
because of the slowdown from the economic boom of the Shah’s era. Bazaar merchantswho
make as well as sell goods-had been major supporters and financiers of the
revolution. They, too, had some grievances with the Islamic regime’s sporadic attempts
to control foreign trade and conduct antiprofiteering campaigns.
Most dissatisfied of all were large elements of the wealthy urban middle class,
whose privileges, jobs, and Western cultural orientation had tied them to the Shah or at
least alienated them from his Islamic successors. Middle-class women faced special
problems because their Western dress and liberated ways were now regarded as
treasonous. Those who appeared in public wearing cosmetics or without the black allencompassing
chador were subjected to harassment. Women were also forced out of a
wide variety of jobs.
Yet the regime could counter or limit all these conflicts. Many peasants did
receive land or benefits from the revolution, and they were particularly responsive to
Khomeini’s personal appeal and the guidance of local imams. Bazaar merchants
successfully lobbied against radical policies and were the most ideologically supportive
of all nonclerical groups. Lower-class women, who retained a traditional life-style and
wore the chador anyway, were not affected by the antifeminist policies.
Well over 1 million Iranians, mostly business and professional families,
emigrated. The migration or passivity of those middle-class elements opposed to the
Islamic Republic removes them as potential rivals. Khomeini welcomed their departure:
“Let these moribund brains drain away; these brains have worked for the aliens [and]
were part and parcel of [SAVAKI-let them flee the country.” Even the loss of initial
enthusiasm for the regime does not threaten its survival inasmuch as the atmosphere
among the disgruntled is one of cynicism or fear. The ability to export as little as 1
million barrels of oil a day makes possible the reasonable functioning of even a badly
Organized opposition groups were demoralized, disorganized, divided, and forced
into exile from 1979 to 1984, beginning with the anti-Shah democrats and continuing
through the supporters of President Abol Hassan Bani Sadr, the new left, dissident
clerics, and the Tudeh (Communist) party. Along the way Kurdish nationalists and anti-
Khomeini clergy were defeated or neutralized. These groups were destroyed because they
were blamed for internal disturbances, linked with foreign powers, and defined as being
in opposition to Khomeini’s teachings. The hostage crisis was particularly useful in this
respect, allowing the regime to declare Iran as being under attack from America.
Khomeini said in 1979, for example, “We suspect that those who pose as leftists and who
think they are supporting the people are agents of the United States.” By such means
repression was made popularly acceptable.
The revolution also refused to be judged on its material accomplishments alone.
Said Khomeini: “I do not accept that any prudent individual can believe that the purpose
of all these sacrifices was to have less expensive melons, that we sacrificed our young
men to have less expensive housing. No one would give his life for better agriculture.” A
Tehran radio commentary added, “For [the West] politics is nothing but a mathematical
process.” But for Iranians “dignity is better than full bellies.”
After defeating the Shah’s regime and rival political groups, Khomeini had to
ensure that the regime would not destroy itself from within. He did this by allowing some
freedom of debate within the ruling circles while settling disputes by his own
unchallengeable decrees. He tried to maintain high standards among the ruling group. “If
one single clergyman takes a wrong step,” he said in a May 1985 sermon, “then the entire
clerical class will he blamed.” There is a long tradition in Iran of anticlericalism based on
the view that mullahs are corrupt and hypocritical. As one story has it, a woman in a store
loudly criticizes the regime because there is no soap powder available. “You should not
complain,” says a mullah standing nearby. “Fatima [the prophet Muhammad’s daughter]
never had soap powder.” “Yes,” replies the woman, “but Muhammad never rode around
in a Mercedes either.”
The ayatollah also warned Iran’s leaders to restrain their individual ambitions.
“To seek power, whoever might seek it, would lead to one’s fall.” Satan knows that the
best way to manipulate a person is to convince him of his own importance. Khomeini
even sought to curtail his own cult of personality by insisting that the media limit the
number of stories and pictures about him. He constantly urged unity on his followers, and
he threatened to destroy anyone who threatened their collective rule.
Like other modern dictatorships, Khomeini’s regime sought to redefine freedom
to justify its control over the population. Liberty, to the West and Iran’s Westernized
intellectuals, said Khomeini, meant hedonism, taverns, houses of prostitution, and
coeducational bathing. Such imported thinking was “freedom designed for us by the
West, rather than a freedom planned by us (and] would lead our country to destruction.”
Indeed, the Western style of freedom was a conspiracy by those “who plan to plunder our
Similarly, Khomeini challenged the morality of the international order and the
standards used to criticize Iran. “Let them erect a wall around Iran and confine us inside
this wall,” he said at a “Crimes of America” rally in June 1980. “We prefer this to the
doors being open and plunderers pouring into our country. Why should we want to
achieve a civilization which is worse than savagery?”
Qaddafi would agree. He was born in the most backwater region of what was then
just about the most backwater country in the Arab world, but he had wonderful
credentials for a man who would unite Libya and preach Arab nationalism. The politics
of Libya had long been marked by rivalry between the Cyrenaica and Tripolitania
regions. Qaddafi’s family were nomads belonging to a small tribe living along the border,
and he received his early education in the third province, Fezzan. His poor family saved
money to send him to school, where he was looked down upon as a Bedouin.
These simple facts point to many factors that shaped Qaddafi’s character. Coming
from a poor family, a weak tribe, an undeveloped region, and an unprestigious Bedouin
background, Qaddafi suffered oppression several times over. Yet his family’s pastoral
way of life had been the wellspring of Islam and of the great Arab conquests, culture, and
prized virtues. Qaddafi must have seen the disdain shown toward him by city people as a
symbol of their rejection of traditional ways. Just as Khomeini saw himself, and was seen
by others, as the paladin of pious Islam, Qaddafi qualified as the representative of heroic
After the Italian conquest in 1911 and under twenty years of Mussolini’s rule, the
Libyans were treated far worse than were Arabs under any other European regime. Up to
half the population died under terrible conditions of war and famine. Italy did nothing to
develop education or the economic infrastructure. The resulting bitterness accounts for
Qaddafi’s view of a ravaging Western imperialism and his obsession with a full-scale
U.S. invasion of Libya today, providing a parallel with Iran’s psychological fixation on
the U.S.-backed coup of 1953.
When Libya finally achieved independence in 1951, it was a poor country,
artificially created by the merger of the three regions and ruled by a newly created
monarchy. The elderly king had a long record of nationalist struggle against the Italians,
but his base as head of the Senusi religious brotherhood was restricted to Cyrenaica. King
Idris lacked the roots and legitimacy that allowed the Saudi and other Persian Gulf
monarchies to survive and never had the time needed to gain momentum and credit from
the oil wealth that began to flow into the country in the 1960s. Oil money proved as
destabilizing as it did in Iran. Urbanization disrupted society while prosperity did not
spread widely enough to solve the problems created. Politics remained the private
property of a small elite. Parties and trade unions were banned; elections were corrupt
contests between clans. As in Iran-and Egypt, Iraq, and Syria as well-new groups arose to
protest this monopoly of power. The failure of the old regime to mobilize successfully the
masses’ loyalty made it vulnerable. The manipulation of elections and parliaments
discredited those institutions.
Meanwhile, Qaddafi and his fellows, including Abdul Salam Jalloud, his
boyhood friend and later number two man, were being stirred by the Arab nationalism of
Nasser and Cairo’s radio Voice of the Arabs. Expelled from high school for leading a
student demonstration and failed out of the university, Qaddafi intensified his secret
political activities. In 1963 he entered the military academy, like Nasser in Egypt and
Assad in Syria, to prepare a coup rather than to seek a career.
Qaddafi’s group copied Nasser even to the extent of calling itself the Free
Officers. In September 1969, with Qaddafi not yet thirty years old, the conspirators took
power in a bloodless coup. The story is told that when the Libyan leader met his idol,
Nasser commented, “You remind me of my youth.” Qaddafi took this as praise, but in the
spirit of Heikal’s story, the implication of Qaddafi’s inflexibility and naïvete also had a
hidden sting. At any rate, the Egyptian president had only a few months to live and could
not serve as Qaddafi’s mentor.
Qaddafi imposed his own personal style on the regime. After Nasser’s death
Qaddafi considered himself the best candidate for leadership in the Arab world. Tripoli
began to open up relations with the USSR. An Arab Socialist Union (the same name as
Nasser’s party) was organized as the sole political party; Communists, Muslim
Brotherhood members, and other dissidents were imprisoned. Up to this point, Libya’s
regime was similar to other radical Arab military governments, but, rather than
emphasize consolidation of his rule at home, Qaddafi was frustrated that the quick and
easy Arab unity he expected did not materialize. The inconclusive nature of the 1973
Arab-Israeli War and Egypt’s decision to make peace with Israel at Camp David further
Qaddafi , like Khomeini in later years, condemned the breakdown of traditional
values. But interested as both men were in social and cultural continuity, they sought
technological and political change, economic development, and military strength. In
Libya, as in Iran, the revolution’s first stage was aimed at rooting out the old regime,
consolidating the new government’s power, removing foreign influences, and ensuring
national control of valuable resources. Qaddafi demanded the closure of British and U.S.
air bases, and the two countries quickly complied. He nationalized British Petroleum’s
share of Libyan oil production and began to pressure the U.S. companies as well. Libya
was a weak link for the international oil cartel since coming on-line relatively late, it was
drilled by small companies that would make far more concessions to keep their holdings.
From being one of the world’s poorest countries–for many years its leading
export had been scrap steel from World War II battlefields-Libya became the recipient of
billions of dollars in oil revenue each year. Qaddafi used some of this money to make
tremendous strides in raising the nation’s literacy rate and standard of living, and these
benefits also increased support for his rule.
The nature of this kind of economic boom has tremendous implications on the
direction and politics of Libya and other petroleum welfare states. Development is fragile
since it rests on no agricultural or industrial base. Unless the rate of income to population
is very high, as it is in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, imports can quickly eat up surpluses.
The government has tremendous power in its hands since, from the start, it controls what
is overwhelmingly the main source of income. The oil industry needs very few
employees, so on the one hand, it does not solve the problem of employment, but on the
other, it creates no discontented proletariat. The influx of foreign technicians can create
tremendous antagonisms, but if the oil money allows the nation as a whole to benefit
from the import of service and domestic workers to do the dirty work, it turns the
relatively small local population into a sort of Athenian aristocracy.
The quick and easy rise of income can also lead to a dangerous arrogance,
underestimating the limits of willpower and the difficulty of solving economic problems.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, bound by tradition, are cautious about change. The
Westernized Shah and modern dictatorships are more prone to such dangerous hubris.
Iraq spent its oil money on grand development schemes until the war with Iran derailed
its progress and, in both combatants, reduced petroleum production and soaked up much
of the remaining oil income.
As the oil glut appeared in the 1980s, prosperity faded. The sale of petroleum
made Libya $19.5 billion in 1980 but only 510.4 billion in 1984 and even less thereafter.
External debt rose to $7 billion; financial reserves fell to the lowest levels in a decade.
The economic situation was worsened by Qaddafi’s political decisions. His pet project,
the “Great Man-Made River” to irrigate large tracts of Libya, may cost as much as $25
billion and could well end in breaking the country. In 1980 he nationalized commerce,
explaining, “Trade is a form of exploitation.” Foreign merchants were also expelled.
Combined with Libya’s lower oil income, this meant that shops became emptied because
of the mismanagement of distribution. Taking over retail trade is-along with underpaying
peasant producers-the worst economic mistake made by modern dictatorships. Syria and
Iran rejected this option, partly because such a step would turn disenchanted merchants
and artisans into new political enemies. Libya’s tiny middle class, however, could mount
no such opposition although the inefficiency disenchanted hard-hit consumers. In the best
Bedouin tradition Qaddafi proclaimed, “Land is no man’s property,” and supporters
burned property registries in many places. Similarly, Qaddafi did not have to cope with a
large peasant class whose dearest ambition was to own its own land. The country’s
unusual social structure allowed him to be more flighty, having escaped the gravitational
pull of class and interest group demands.
These factors, combined with Qaddafi’s whimsical style, also had some
disadvantages, however. The regime continued to have a narrower political base than
governments in hierarchy-oriented Egypt and the better organized Baathist dictatorships
in Syria and Iraq. The original Revolutionary Command Council broke up in 1975, when
two of its members, outraged at Qaddafi’s lavish spending, organized an unsuccessful
coup. The two men fled, and other relative moderates were imprisoned or executed. But
the increased amounts of oil money were also Qaddafi’s greatest asset. He could spend as
much as he wanted on military equipment, development, imports of consumer goods that
filled Libya’s stores, and foreign activities for many years without coming close to
“Needs and demands are two different things,” says one of Qaddafi’s slogans,
which, like many aphorisms of modern dictators’, give unintended insights into their
underlying philosophies. The people demand what they want, but the leader decides what
they need. The average Libyan may remain concerned about his personal and family’s
well-being; Qaddafi determines that the Libyan people are going to get more spending for
arms and for promoting foreign revolutions. All political leaders must decide how to
divide limited resources among competing social sectors. Dictators can ignore the
requests from below, but a shrewd modern dictator will at least modify his policy by
listening to the sectors represented in the party, mass organizations, and key advisers. The
more Qaddafi talked about the masses and about how to involve them in decision
making, the more he became out of touch with them. Qaddafi did not have to take
account of their wishes since he assumed that he already represented their will. As the
Libyan slogan puts it, “The Libyan people are Muammar al-Qaddafi.”
Attempting to mobilize Libyans was particularly frustrating because the people
lacked experience of political life. Their inferiority complex over the country’s
unimportance in the Arab world and in the world at large was assuaged by Qaddafi’s
flamboyant internationalism. But since the regime had a weaker base than counterparts, it
needed to threaten a larger proportion of its own people. At home, as abroad, Qaddafi
adopted extreme measures to attain his goals.
Qaddafi’s organizational structure is based on the idea of direct democracy. He
has proclaimed Libya a jamahiriyah, a state of the masses, rather than a jamhouriya, a
republic. A central part of his cultural revolution was the establishment of about 1,400
people’s committees, combining the equivalent of party cells with the local groups
charged with punishment and reward seen in so many other modern dictatorships. The
basic people’s congresses chose delegates to regional congresses, who, in turn, chose
representatives to a general congress. In theory, Qaddafi had no power; in practice he
had tremendous but not total power. For example, socially conservative Libyans blocked
his proposal to give women compulsory military training.
On the national level Libyan politics centered on factions battling for Qaddafi’s
attention. The veterans of the regime and army are represented by Jalloud, the
government apparatus by Foreign Minister Ali Taraki, and the people’s congress activists
by a third group. Each faction tried to prove itself more faithful to Qaddafi , with the
most militant group having an inherent advantage since it had no inhibitions about
backing everything he did. Qaddafi’s informal style of governing encouraged this kind of
competition. Thus, there were five different intelligence agencies, which watch one
another. Behind Qaddafi’s showy female bodyguard stood his real inner bodyguard of
tribal kinsmen. Qaddafi demotes, promotes, and rotates high officials at regular intervals.
There is a great deal more improvisation than there is institutionalization.
Qaddafi’s government by whim is dangerous to himself. The lack of institutions
deprives him of the protective cushion enjoyed by the modern dictatorships in Iran, Iraq,
Syria, and Egypt, where institutions, ideology, and proregime loyalties are wider and
deeper. If Qaddafi were to die, Libya would still be an Arab nationalist dictatorship, but it
would he a very different kind of state in many respects.
While Qaddafi maintains a close watch on the army, the lack of a party structure
has made it more difficult to ensure the military’s loyalty. Indeed, he has gone out of his
way to bait the officers, saying in January 1986, “The masses must replace the Army. The
regular Army will disappear, and armed citizens will replace it.” But he has neither built
any parallel military force, as has Khomeini, nor developed bonds of party loyalty, as
have the Syrian, Iraqi, Algerian, and South Yemeni regimes. “It would be difficult to
have a coup,” says Qaddafi , “because the authority is in the hands of the people and they
would refuse.” It is one thing for a ruler to make statements like this and another to act as
if he believed them.
If Qaddafi’s attempts to assassinate dissidents abroad represents, once again, an
extreme position, his attitude toward opposition is typical for a modern dictator. Since his
theory and system are properly Islamic, Arab, and nationalist, Qaddafi argues, opposition
to it is un-Islamic, un-Arab, and antinational. Hence dissent is by definition treasonous
collaboration with foreign imperialists. He calls opponents “stray dogs,” a far nastier
characterization to Arab than to Western ears.
Qaddafi proclaimed in February 1980, “Physical liquidation is the final stage in
the dialectic conflict between the revolution and its enemies, when all other means of
liquidation (social, economic, and political) have failed.” Regimes that owe more of their
ideology to Marxism are usually content to eliminate opponents as a class, but Qaddafi’s
and Khomeini’s systems are also oriented to punishment and revenge. At a conference in
New York Islamic Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations was being heckled by exiled
Iranian students. He smiled broadly and explained that “our enemies can certainly try to
kill us but we have a right to kill them first.” He made the prospect seem more a matter of
pleasure than of political necessity.
As an ideologist and leader Qaddafi believes in reshaping reality. Again, this is a
common theme among Third World modern dictators, but again he takes it to an extreme.
The arguments are impressive: The current situation is too unpleasant to accept, other
countries have developed, and the experience can be duplicated; the regime has shown in
the past its success in altering seemingly inevitable facts-overthrowing the king, expelling
the U.S. and British bases, taking over control of oil resources, and even confronting
superpowers in head-on confrontations. Like economic decision making, ideological and
foreign policy choices can be made on the basis of excessive confidence.
Thus, Qaddafi claims his ideology is superior to communism and capitalism. Like
other modern dictators, he sees the Third World as an oppressed equivalent of what the
proletariat is for Marxism and sees nationalism as the substitute for class struggle. The
idea of development as a technical problem is rejected in the same way that Lenin
attacked trade union demands. These leaders argue that a qualitative, not just a
quantitative, change is needed: an internal revolution against those blocking progress; an
external struggle against imperialism.
Despite such “mainstream” aspects to his thinking, Qaddafi introduces some
highly unusual features. He takes the universal aspect of his theory more seriously than
do those who mainly confine their concerns to one country. His ideology is more
synthetic and idiosyncratic. Khomeini is a universalist, but he gives credit to Islam, not
himself, for Iran’s ruling ideology. The Syrian and Iraqi Baathists restrict their attentions
to the Arab world and borrow more self-consciously from Marxism.
Finally, Qaddafi’s proposed solution is a combination of tribal-style democracy,
anarcho-syndicalism, and the corporate state. All this is presented in Qaddafi’s threevolume
Green Book. Many of its themes are common ones in contemporary Third World
modern dictatorships and even in the seminal European dictatorships. “Democracy means
popular rule, not popular expression,” is a very revealing notion. The theoretical
hegemony of all the masses replaces majority rule. Since the people are in control, there
is no need for any free speech or other rights to criticize or oppose the government.
“Representation is a falsification of democracy” is another common theme. But where
most modern dictatorships would go on to extol the party and charismatic leader as true
carriers of the people’s will, Qaddafi’s solution is the committee system, which seeks to
empower everyone yet produces less real involvement than a cadre party. The greatest
freedom is the right to support the righteous leader, who, by definition, represents the
Qaddafi’s choice of green as his symbol embodies the belief in his own monopoly
on political and theological virtue. Green is the color of Islam-the hue of Muhammad’s
banner. It also represents prosperity and development, the Bedouins’ ideal of the oasis.
Yet while everything possible is painted green in Libya, Qaddafi’s relation to Islam is
somewhat ambiguous. North African Islam has always been somewhat of a deviation to
the classical tradition as viewed from Cairo and points cast. Qaddafi has taken such a
negative attitude toward clerical hierarchies and some commonly held Islamic beliefs that
he almost seems like a Middle Eastern Martin Luther. Not only has his behavior put him
at odds with Libyan mullahs, but he has also forfeited much of the cohesive value that
Islam provides for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Qaddafi has banned alcohol
and instituted proper dress codes. Women are allotted a limited public role. But
essentially Qaddafi’s view is that Islam is what he says it is, and even compared to
Khomeini, there are few outside Libya who would accept his interpretation.
Terrorism, as noted in Iran’s case, is as much Qaddafi’s weapon of desperation as
of choice. Terrorism is a substitute for, not a means of, making revolutions. He does not
have thousands of followers or powerful political movements willing to follow him. On
the contrary, he must hire or subsidize small bands of a few hundred. He cannot
successfully invade or organize coups in targeted countries, so he resorts to assassinations
and spectacular attacks to neutralize enemies and intimidate bystanders. Further, by
hosting terrorist training camps and supporting a range of groups, Qaddafi claims to be
doing his Arab and Islamic duty to “liberate” Palestine, overthrow “reactionary” regimes,
and bring true Muslims to power.
The most salient point about Qaddafi’s foreign policy is its remarkably consistent
failure. Qaddafi’s desire to cause international turmoil should he taken seriously, but his
capacity for doing so has repeatedly proved quite limited. One of the main reasons for
this reality is his inability to make and sustain alliances. In view of his unreliability–
Libya does not even deliver on most of its promised financial aid-he has alienated all of
Libya’s neighbors and made himself increasingly unpopular among black African states.
Again, however, if he is too clumsy and ultraradical, the themes he keeps before the
world-aiming to destroy Israel, blame Third World problems on the West, assert equality
with the superpowers, and demand Arab unity-are widely accepted among Libyans and
Arabs in general.
Essentially Qaddafi , like Khomeini, demands equality with the great powers by
acting like a superpower. When the United States pressures him, he threatens to attack it.
Qaddafi’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons is part of this search for equality. In all of the
Middle Eastern modern dictatorships, there is a curious ambiguity in attitudes toward the
United States. Qaddafi, the most outspoken critic, wants U.S. recognition and acceptance.
He seeks to punish America for failing to treat him as an equal and recognizing his
importance. Like the United States and USSR, Qaddafi , too, will he active everywhere in
the world: He plans assassinations of foreign leaders, coups in Sudan, covert operations
against Tunisia. He has virtually annexed the desert area of northern Chad and given
money to the Eritrean Liberation Front, Muslims in the southern Philippines, black
Muslims in the United States, and even the Irish Republican Army. He builds mosques
and distributes bribes in Africa, organizes a unity march of 50,000 on the border with
Egypt, and permits terrorist training bases on his own soil. Of course, Libya’s capabilities
do not match up to these ambitions, and attempts to convince the rest of the Third World
to follow his example are, consequently, unpersuasive except when they are intimidating.
To make up for his weakness, Qaddafi uses the magnifying and transforming
qualities of the media. At home the television weather map omits Egypt, Israel, and the
United States. For foreign consumption and his own ego, he dons beautiful costumes,
arranges press conferences and photo opportunities, even supervises the positioning of
cameras. After all, Qaddafi was a communications officer, not an infantryman. It is not
surprising that he is a better actor than strategist.
All modern dictatorships are proficient in using the media, but it serves them far
better at home, where they have full control and know how the message will he received.
During the hostage crisis Iranian leaders genuinely believed that the American people
would be supportive if only they beard Tehran’s message. Instead, the kidnapping of U.S.
diplomats only heightened American antagonism toward Iran, dissipating the sympathy
accumulated in the struggle against the Shah’s traditional dictatorship. Images do not
travel well across cultural barriers, but resonances within the country work far better.
Khomeini was a master speaker and manipulator of symbols among Iranians; Saddam
Hussein and a number of African counterparts were equally successful in projecting
positive images and building direct links with the people.
Qaddafi is the most preoccupied of them all with foreign affairs. Like the regimes
in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, and South Yemen, he maintains good relations with the
Soviets (who are his main source of arms) but is neither their puppet nor their reliable
ally. Common enemies and interests consolidate cooperation but do not undermine the
Arab regimes’ nationalism and priority on independence.
While other Arab governments pursue state interests, however, the Libyan
dictator is obsessed with duplicating Nasser’s relative mastery of the Arab world.
Qaddafi courts confrontation with the United States, hoping to reproduce the 1956 Suez
crisis, when Egypt, invaded by Britain, France, and Israel, emerged politically victorious
against tremendous odds. Nasser became a godlike figure at home and the Arabs’ hero.
Qaddafi credits the miracle of Suez to Nasser’s steadfastness and Arab support; a more
accurate account, ironically, would point to a U.S. refusal to see Nasser overthrown.
Nevertheless, Nasser once wrote that leadership in the Arab world was a role in search of
an actor. As Qaddafi issues his broadsides against America, supports anti-American
terrorism, or sails
off in cape and naval uniform to confront U.S. military maneuvers near his selfproclaimed
“line of death,” he is in search of his own Suez crisis. On the one hand, any
combination of U.S. bluster and relative restraint would play perfectly into his hands by
giving him this chance. It would be more effective for the West to ridicule his failures
than to exaggerate his successes. On the other hand, Qaddafi’s misunderstanding of
contemporary regional politics means that he gains nothing from these opportunities. He
receives world attention but not respect, not even among the Africans and Arabs.
To understand Qaddafi’s theory of foreign policy, it is necessary only to analyze
his own words. While his practice is more adventurous than that of other modern
dictators, once more his ideas reflect common concepts among those regimes. Speaking
at the graduation of military cadets at a ceremony held on the former U.S. airfield in
August 1985, Qaddafi revealed some essential aspects of his thought. “We have smashed
the sign bearing the name Wheelus Field with our feet, and have replaced it with
Mi’itiqah Base … and the national flag was hoisted over this base in spite of America.”
This echoes the thesis that the modern dictator has reversed the power equation,
vindicating nationalism, slaying the imperialist dragon. The change of names symbolizes
this new order; the occurrence of one miracle-the ejection of foreign bases-attributable to
good leadership and national willpower, shows that other great deeds are possible
through these qualities.
Qaddafi continued, “We are convinced … that force alone has kept the peace for
40 years [between the United States and USSR] during which time they began to
manufacture nuclear weapons and set up nuclear bases everywhere…. This means that
peace itself depends on force. As for the calls we hear from them to stop any buildup of
force, this is a deception aimed to keep small peoples weak, spheres of influence
influential.” The centrality of force in the world and the conspiracy against Third World
sovereignty necessitate a high degree of unity, a strong central government, and an
emphasis on military power. This requires an “armed people where millions are
organized [for] battle … so that the Arab nation, armed by the masses, will rise up and
crush Zionist injustice and finish off imperialist haughtiness. . . .”
But why has this not been done already? Qaddafi’s answer cannot be, as Arabs
said a century ago, that their weakness is due to a lack of constitutionalism or democracy.
He will not argue, like a technocrat, that a change in circumstances requires a long period
of development and stability. Instead, he traces the problem to treachery: “The Arab
rulers surrendered in an unprecedented manner, prostrating themselves and begging in
humiliation.” Even these measures, however, will bring them nothing, he claims.
Qaddafi, of course, has not paid the price or accumulated the sad lessons of those states
that once tried to do as he now advises.
He continues with the “finger-snapping” paradigm, claiming success in keeping
the elephants far away. The onlv thing holding back American aggression, even
occupation, is the U.S. fear of Libya’s military force. Portraying an American eagerness
to invade Libya-as Khomeini does with Iran-Qaddafi warns that all true nationalists must
now support his leadership in this moment of crisis. Anyone who opposes his regime “is
a crook and hireling,” an American agent. Still, Libya will not remain on the defensive,
because “unity can only he achieved with force. Thus we as revolutionaries… feel that
from now on the sanctity of all the artificial borders should be dropped,” and the rulers
imposed by colonialism overthrown. Now he is no longer speaking the language of Pan-
Arabism so much as he is implying-again in terms parallel to those of Islamic Iran-that
those who resist will he conquered by his own state. These issues are all “internal
matters,… like the unity of Italy … Germany … China, and … America. All these nations
have achieved their unity by force and the international community did not interfere.
Anything that happens inside the Arab homeland from the Atlantic Ocean to the [Persian]
Gulf, we must consider as an internal action,” a view that expresses the widely accepted
idea of the Middle East as a zone that should be dominated by the Arabs or Muslims, off
limits to anyone else.
Here, too, is Qaddafi’s version of Third World political existentialism. So
threatened is the existence of the nation that survival must take priority over everything
else, but the battle for survival will inevitably allow a much higher stage of development.
National existence precedes essence, willpower will shape the nature of the state and
society, and the modern dictator will inspire and channel the necessary determination and
Invoking equality with the West is only a stride toward the argument of
proclaiming superiority. “We have to prove that this is not Grenada,” continues Qaddafi.
But Libya is “a nation which is greater than America. The material force of America does
not make it better than the great Arab nation which created civilization.”
In the end Qaddafi is both shrewd manipulator and true believer. Within his own
country he can he extremely effective; in foreign policy his naïve fanaticism often gains
the upper hand, and his inability to understand other people becomes a handicap. To
Western ears Qaddafi is out of tune; in the regional context he plays the right notes but in
a manner too strident to be ultimately appealing. Within Libya he may be less effective
than comparable modern dictators, but his popularity and achievements should not be
Modern dictators must take postures suitable to their conditions. Qaddafi is the
courageous, flamboyant hero, Khomeini is the ascetic, honest, and stern servant of God;
Saddam Hussein and Assad are the no-nonsense, radical-pragmatic men of the people;
Mubarak is the paternalistic conciliator. Each of them will eventually die, and their
immediate supporters may lose out in the ensuing power struggles. Still, each of their
countries is liable to retain a style of government very much like the one they built.