Muammar Qaddafi’s march forward following his avowed acceptance of a United Nations-mandated ceasefire provoked surprise in much of the civilized world. It’s not that anyone thought Qaddafi had elegant manners, but there was some presumption that he would understand that lying to the U.N. would exacerbate the consequences of defying its decree. To contemplate the idea that there would ever be a correlation between what Qaddafi said and what he did is to miss the central tenet of his rule. Propaganda is, of course, a key tool of control over any large population. The difference between that process in Libya and other countries is that in Libya it has been unabashedly transparent. The objective of propaganda is, by and large, to convince people that something false is true. In Libya, there was never any meaningful effort to persuade people of the fictions spouted by the Qaddafi regime; everyone knew perfectly well how wide the gap was between what was said and what happened. Yet Qaddafi went on saying, almost as though it were a nervous tic.
He has long insisted that he is not actually head of state in Libya, that the country is ruled through his system of direct democracy. I met hundreds of Libyans at every level of the society when I was there, and I never met one who bought into this idea. Qaddafi often compared himself to the Queen of England, and said his role was ceremonial, but everyone knew that he was running the country. Stalin never said that he wasn’t in charge; neither did Hitler, or Honecker, or even Kim Jong Il. Being ruled over by someone who maintains that he isn’t ruling over you is a very surreal experience. In support of his position, Qaddafi has continued to style himself “Colonel Qaddafi”; if he’s a colonel, David Petraeus is a private first class.
Libyans did not merely have to put up with Qaddafi’s lies. They were compelled to participate in them. He presented his Jamahiriya system as the world’s only true democracy, declaring that the U.S. and other democratic countries should study it and learn from it. The system encourages people to participate in Basic People’s Congresses, public forums in which everyone is supposed to air his concerns and grievances so that the voice of each person can be heard in the corridors (or perhaps tents) of power. These are not merely opportunities to let off steam or do the equivalent of writing to your congressman; they are supposed to be the basis on which the country is ruled. In fact, nothing is ever done about the opinions expressed there, except that anyone who has said anything too critical runs the risk of being detained, imprisoned, or tortured. Many people told me that they felt that if they did not attend and participate, they would attract suspicion, and so people kept going through these ludicrous exercises—for two weeks, four times a year. That’s a lot of time and energy to give over to a dumbshow. Qaddafi’s Green Book is the focus of entire departments at Libyan universities, where it is dissected and explicated in somber tones by academics who know, as everyone in Libya does, that its diktats have no bearing on Libyan or world events. Many citizens of the Soviet Union knew that their country was not a paradise of workers and that the K.G.B. was actively watching them; many whites in South Africa recognized that apartheid was a bigger problem than the government wanted to acknowledge. But I have never been anyplace where the fictions were so pervasive, occupied so many resources, and were known by all the people they affected to be so specious.
Working in Libya was worse than working in any other country I’ve ever covered; indeed, it was the most unpleasant experience I ever had as a journalist. In 1994, I met with Seif Qaddafi in Montreal, and he told me, charmingly, that he was arranging for my visa to Libya and that he looked forward to welcoming me there soon. For the ensuing eight months, I kept asking after my visa, and I was constantly reassured that it was in the works. Seif Qaddafi had the power to issue a visa at a moment’s notice; what was this delaying? When I eventually won my visa to Libya through other subterfuges, I told Seif’s office that I was coming, and they announced that they were thrilled and promised to help. When I got there, they did everything they could to obstruct my work. Many diplomats in the West took Seif’s recent assurances of reform to heart, and were surprised by the thuggery he evidenced when he appeared on television shortly after the rebellion began in Libya. The only surprising part, though, was that he dispensed with the pretense. Early in the conflict, Seif Qaddafi appeared on international television to declare that the family had no personal wealth and that seizing their assets was therefore a pointless exercise. At the same time, he was sending frantic text messages to an American fund manager I know asking for help with a variety of harebrained schemes for moving his liquid assets out of Libya and the U.S.
Don’t think that Libyans believe “Colonel” Qaddafi’s ongoing broadcasts on Libyan state TV—which have said that he is not using air defenses or planes against Libyans, that mobs are celebrating his rule, that the rebels are all youth drugged by malicious foreigners. This is nothing as programmatic as propaganda; it’s a reflex system of untruths about things that aren’t worth lying about, and it aligns with a level of personal vanity that redefines the notion of solipsism. The international community needs to recognize that what is said in Tripoli and what happens during this time of war are unrelated. We cannot make policy decisions based on what Qaddafi guarantees or proposes. The imperative to give him the benefit of the doubt severely delayed our entry into this fray, which has cost many Libyan lives.
As we lose Libyan lives, we endanger American ones. Having long backed terrible dictators in the Arab world because they sell us oil, the U.S. needs to show that we will support the will of the people, because our support of those dictators has caused so many Arabs to hate us. It makes our high-minded rhetoric about democracy look as absurd as Qaddafi’s. If we had established a no-fly zone two weeks ago, we could have arrested the progress of the anti-rebellion forces. If we don’t drum Qaddafi from power, we allow Al Qaeda’s depiction of the United States as wealthy, self-interested, and corrupt to ring scarily true. If we allow Qaddafi to remain in power, we will embolden other dictators. President Obama’s mixed messages on regime change have been criticized both by people who want to see Qaddafi go and by those who want to see the U.S. out of the conflict. Will accomplishing Qaddafi’s removal at this stage result in a quickly established democracy on the model of, say, Sweden? No. Chaos looms; the rebellion is coherently against something, and not coherently for anything. Even so, its first objective, removing the man, is a valid objective for them and for us.
Commentators worry about our interfering with local affairs, as though we were imposing our values on a large population of Libyans who actually like Qaddafi. We should be very clear that the only people who like this regime are the ones who have profited by it. When the Libyan deputy ambassador to the U.N. denounced Qaddafi, he was hailed as a hero, but he was more likely a pragmatist who saw that the regime would fall and wanted to be in a good position to have an important job in whatever comes to replace it. Those who have profited under Qaddafi but defected have opportunistic impetus. Those who continue to back Qaddafi are likewise opportunistic, simply betting on his success. There’s a crucial difference here, though. If Qaddafi falls, many people who have kept faith with him will find their way into a new government; their skills cannot be ignored. If Qaddafi consolidates power over even part of the country—as he seems to be doing—he will not hesitate to send in his hooligans to torture and kill everyone who has stood up to him, and thousands of people will be eliminated. At that point, neither defeated rebels who didn’t get enough support from the West nor the Qaddafi loyalists whom we’ve bombed will be warmly disposed toward the United States.
A Libyan friend wrote from Tripoli nearly two weeks ago, “We never felt better, but we still have to walk the last meter to reach the gate of freedom. Even if it is covered with blood. It is getting very dangerous and we have to be very careful. They are watching everything.” We haven’t been in touch since because I feared such contact might make him vulnerable. They are watching him, and me, and the world, and their look is not a reassuring one.