Gadhafi’s Death and Middle East Rebirth

October 21, 2011     
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The death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is the death of a Middle East generation that dominated the decades after the Second World War. It is a death that might prove more significant than the demise of communism, the rise of China, or the spread of terrorism. Gadhafi’s murder marks a separation from a recent past that, after years of familiarity, now seems unbelievably strange. We know we are in a decisively new political space for just this reason: those who just months ago seemed destined to rule have quickly disintegrated into the dustbin of history.

Gadhafi’s four decades of rule in Libya were part of a common phenomenon across the Middle East. The articulate and impassioned child of poor citizens, Gadhafi drew popular support from a potent combination of nationalist chest-beating, religious revival, and promises of managed economic development. For societies emerging from colonialism and mired in poverty, charismatic prophets like Gadhafi were intoxicating. They turned the realities of postwar despair in the Middle East into a promise of strong independent states that embraced the modernity of new technologies as they remained true to ancient faiths. Gadhafi was the postcolonial answer to foreign dependency and neo-imperialism in Libya.

Gamal Abdel Nasser anticipated this role in nearby Egypt. Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad adapted the model to Iraq and Syria. The Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s and the zealotry of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were the high tide of what observers at the time viewed as an era of Middle East militant authoritarianism. Some saw it as a new fascism with Islamic characteristics.

Gadhafi and his fellow dictators rarely cooperated and they frequently went to war with one another. They each had delusions of regional dominance. They relied on the rhetoric, symbolism, and experience of perpetual war to boost their leadership and cower their critics. Gadhafi called himself a “colonel” because he claimed to fight side-by-side with his people in battle, and he threatened to destroy anyone who chose another side.

Gadhafi played this game very well. His four decades in power (well beyond the average for rulers in any period or place) prove this point. He kept numerous internal, regional, and global enemies at bay. He enriched himself, his family, and his closest supporters. He became an international celebrity who fascinated observers with his eccentric behavior and rallied suffering people with his defiance of more powerful countries, especially the United States. Most people abhorred Gadhafi, but they respected his charismatic power. That was what made him so threatening, more than just a crazy dictator from a far away place.

The Libyan dictator outlasted Nasser, Assad, Khomeini, and Hussein. He was the last of a long postwar generation. His overthrow shows that the mix of nationalism, religion, and centralized development promised by that group of leaders is no longer persuasive to people in the Middle East. The prophets of the postwar era are the criminals of the twenty-first century. That is what the “Arab Spring” is all about.

What will come next? There is no clear path to democracy in Libya and other Middle East societies. There are no obvious successor figures who can mobilize their societies around a coherent vision. There is no clear program for political renewal in the region.

The societies in the Middle East are, therefore, starting over. They are being reborn. Their futures are more uncertain and open than most people realize. The possibilities for both achievement and disaster are greater than since Nasser, Gadhafi, and others first came to power.

What should the international community do? Amidst such uncertainty, and the tightening constraints on available resources, there are no simple answers. Massive infusions of aid and other forms of direct intervention are impractical and probably counter-productive in present circumstances.

The best route forward is one that encourages increased openness and some basic stability in Libya and other countries. The international community should promote and even modestly fund more outlets for debate in each Middle East country about the future of the region. Maximum political participation should be a goal. The greatest diversity of opinion should be our aim. New political programs will only emerge from a process like this.

To encourage basic stability, international efforts should focus on limiting violence in the region and building local institutions for adjudication of disputes. Citizens should feel safe as they debate their future. They should believe that they are involved with a fair political process. The United States and its allies should support the rule of law, not the rule of a particular party.

This modest program for the Middle East after Gadhafi can have real effects. The history of nation-building over the last two centuries confirms the utility of these measures. It also reminds us that in times of political transformation, focused attention and long-term investment are the best policy. Such wisdom can indeed turn Gadhafi’s death into a true moment of rebirth for the peoples of the Middle East.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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