Gwynne Dyer: What would Moammar Gadhafi have been like without absolute power?

When I was in school, I used to wonder who Gloria Mundi was and how she had died, but it turned out to be my defective Latin. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi means “Thus passes the glory of this world.” But still, it kind of fits, doesn’t it? Sic Transit Moammar Gadhafi.

Being Moammar Gadhafi must have been a bit like being Mick Jagger. You’ve been playing the same role since you were very young, and everybody loves you for it, at least to your face.

You have actually become the standard by which all others aspiring to the same role are judged. And after a while, you start to believe that you really are Jagger, and not just that guy from Dartford who can sing pretty well.

I’m not denying that there were differences between the two men. To the best of my knowledge, Jagger never ordered anybody to be killed. (Neither did Keith Richards, at least to the best of his recollection, and he swears that he remembers everything.) Jagger also has better taste in clothes Gadhafi had, especially in his later years when he took to wearing his mother’s embroidered drapes.

Sorry, that was unkind. They were actually ceremonial robes befitting the King of Africa, which Gadhafi claimed on occasion that he was. It was just that his mother liked very heavy, gaudy drapes, suitable for an African king (or his vision of an African king), and his seamstress had a heavy-duty sewing machine, so why not?

Another difference between Jagger and Gadhafi is that Mick is unlikely to end his life being bombed by the French air force, dragged out of a storm drain, manhandled into the back of a pickup truck, and showered with the curses of the men around him as he bleeds to death. It becomes clearer with every passing day that it is better to be a rock 'n' roll hero than an Arab dictator, which doubtless explains Jagger’s career choice.

Am I being insufficiently serious here? Should I not be condemning Gadhafi’s crimes, and lamenting the fact that he will never stand trial for them, and speculating on Libya’s future after 42 years of one-man rule? Isn’t that what pundits are for?

Perhaps, but what would be the point? There are hundreds of other columnists who are writing exactly that stuff, and none of them knows any more about Libya’s future than I do. Gadhafi’s crimes have been detailed in your friendly neighbourhood media at least once a week for the past six months. Nobody really thought he was going to live to stand trial. So let’s talk about something interesting instead.

He came from a Bedouin family who lived in a traditional herder’s tent, but he was sent away to boarding school. His family hired a tutor for him toward the end of high school, which may explain how he got into the Libyan military academy.

His education was spotty and did not equip him for complicated intellectual endeavours, but he was not an ignorant man. Millions like him have led productive and blameless lives.

We do not know whether Gadhafi played well with others when he was a little boy, but he was certainly popular with his fellow junior officers when he overthrew King Idris at the age of 27. Contemporary reports portray him as an intensely serious young man, charming when he needed to be, but dedicated full-time to the "Arab cause". It’s a profile that he shared with millions of other young idealists in the Arab world.

So how did he end up as a dangerous but ridiculous monster? Those millions of others didn’t. If some other young officer had led the 1969 coup d’etat and made himself the sole ruler of Libya for the next 42 years, Gadhafi might well have ended up as a kindly retired army officer spending his time with his grandchildren. And quite possibly that other young officer would have become the monster.

Lord Acton said it 120 years ago: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." By implication, he is saying that Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and the other mass murderers who have tormented the Arab world over the past decades were shaped more by circumstances than by some intrinsic evil in their character.

If Acton’s analysis is right, then countries where the rule of law is supreme and civil society is strong should not produce such monsters, because they do not allow any individual to have absolute power. If that were always true, then Hitler, for example, could not have achieved absolute power, but it is usually true.

So the remedy is obvious, in the newly free countries of the Arab world and elsewhere, too. Democracy is good, but you also have to build strong civil institutions and an independent judiciary. It’s just a lot easier said than done.

Comments (36) Add New Comment
Emily Mutter
This article is inconsistent and lacks any real arguments to support the claim. Gwynne Dyers feeble attempt to create a relationship between Mick Jagger and Gadhafi is supported by the sole similarity that the pair is both ”the standard by which all others aspiring to the same role are judged” (Dyer). She goes on for the next three paragraphs describing their differences raising the question of why would compare two things with scarcely any similarities?

Dyer insists that Gadhafi was raised no differently then the average boy but provides no evidence and even contradicts herself saying that “we do not know whether Gadhafi played well with others when he was a little boy”. Another inconsistency is found when Dyer compares Jagger and Gadhafi in her second paragraph saying that they’ve “been playing the same role since [they] were very young” suggesting that Gadhafi has always been a dictating tyrant.

Dyer examines the possibility that “if some other young officer had led the 1969 coup d’état and made himself the soul ruler…Gadhafi might well have ended up as a kindly retired officer”. Gadhafi had no moral objections going against his own monarch as he clearly “led the 1969 coup d’état” (Dyer) on his own will.

Dyer calls Gadhafi a “young idealist of the Arab world” implying that he was an optimist and visionary but his country clearly disagreed due to the eruption of celebrations in the streets of Tripoli after his death.

Finally, how can Dyer conclude that power corrupted Gadhafi and is to blame for his “evil… character” when figures such as Obama, also in a powerful position, have avoided corruption?
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Roger Dodger
Emily Mutter, either you're trolling or you didn't even come close to understanding the author's point.

Either way, good one!
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Peter Narsted
Mr. Dyer you should stick to playing with your army toys. We don't need analysis of a serious subject such as the assassination of a sovereign head of state and the murder of some 30,000 Libyan civilians to be treated in such a trite manner. As for your allegations of Gaddafi being a monster, I would like to see evidence of this and not just offhand accusations. What I do know about Gaddafi's Libya is that it had the highest standard of living amongst African countries, a water infrastructure project that had just been completed that promised to turn much of Libya's desert into an oasis, free education, free medical care, a share of oil revenue profits paid back to the people, a nationalized oil industry and progressive treatment of women in its society. But most importantly, Libya had a state owned public bank that funded the nations needs without imposing usury upon its people. Libya was a self sufficient country that was not beholden to the IMF or the World Bank. So perhaps before you shoot your mouth off next time about a subject you apparently know very little about you could do some research from an unbiased viewpoint. And BTW, are you still wearing that POS leather jacket? You could have used a little haberdashery advice from the Colonel!
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Jake Thompson
Personally, I agree completely with Emily Mutter- very well said.
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Daniel Abrams
emily i think your point is straight on. the entire article has a bunch of loose ends where in it's written perspective one could be easily convinced of the author's point. however once you begin comparing the author's opinion to others you find that it is inconsistent and as emily pointed out has a lack of support.
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Davfan
Emily,

1 - Dyer is a man, not a woman. Read more of his work, he's been around awhile and has a singular world-weary style. But okay, this article is a bit glib and not his best work.

2 - There's a difference between a 'powerful position' such as the US Presidency and the absolute dictatorship of Gaddafi. You can't really compare the two, that would be like comparing Gaddafi to...I don't know...Mick Jagger.
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Sarah leger
Well said Emily mutter! Very to the point!
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alexthegreat
re: majority of above comments

Looks like there's a few of gadhafi's minions still around.
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Ted Campbell
The first thing I do when I hear or read about a "dictator" of an oil-rich nation being ousted is search ever-deeper into who is actually behind the not-so-civil wars. Ten year old photos of Iraq and Libya show wide streets, lots of parks, millions of people with higher standards of living than their forebears, low-cost housing, medical care, recent automobiles, lower-cost fuel than the rest of the world. The next thing CNN starts referring to the leaders in derogatory terms, airplanes and bombs show up and the "freedom-fighters" no one knows even existed are magically equipped with the latest and most expensive armament. The bad guys become dead but no one seems to live happily ever after. Makes me wonder if Iran is next. I think I'll download some current 'photos for future reference. Say hello to Rumsfeldt and Cheney for me.
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miguel
I bet Gadaffi could have told many tales of connivance with western govts. Worthwhile making sure he didn't get to trial.
Miguel
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aloo gobi
Hilarious. Dyer appears to be poking fun at the work of Dana Carney and her team of researchers as discussed in this Times article http://healthland.time.com/2011/05/26/the-psychology-of-dictatorship-why... Dana is an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University http://www.columbia.edu/~dc2534/ and her work has been described as junk science yet she's continually in the media. She was the lead author of a study entitled "How Power Corrupts” which holds the belief that Dictators are more or less normal people who develop mental disorders in the extraordinary circumstance of holding absolute power.

Professor Jerrold M. Post, who is a professor of psychiatry, political psychology, and international affairs at George Washington University and had a 21-year career at the CIA, where he was the founding director of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behaviour put forward an important analysis of Qaddafi’s personality following 20-years’ experience overseeing leaders “psychological profiles.” He writes that “While this is not a definitive clinical diagnosis, Qaddafi can best be characterized as having a borderline personality. The "borderline" often swings from intense anger to euphoria. Under his often "normal" facade, he is quite insecure and sensitive to slight. His reality testing is episodically faulty. While most of the time Qaddafi is "above the border" and in touch with reality, when under stress he can dip below it and his perceptions can be distorted and his judgment faulty.” http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/15/qaddafi_under_seige

Thanks indeed Gwynne for giving us something different to talk as this was one of the most amusing/witty political commentaries I've read in a long time.
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Ottawa Ted
Another psychopath comes to an ignoble end. I don't think Mick's a psychopath. Maybe just a narcissist.
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Bob Pellow
Ruminating on what could have been is pretty reasonable in my opinion. One could say that an insane man was murdered by a bunch of revolutionary or islamist thugs when one is talking about the assassination. All to the good many will say. I hope they would take the same position regarding the murder of the Tsar and his family by revolutionary communist thugs.

Looking at these murderous figures, from Gadhafi all the way back to Hitler as real people who could have been fairly innocuous given different times is worthwhile. Depicting them as some kind of evil nonhuman demon is the usual popculture response. They really are us and any one of us could have been them.

There is a whole school of history that sees individuals corrupted by power at the heart of so many wars. If the Kaiser hadn't had a withered arm, would the Great War have happened? Would the followup war have occurred if Hitler had been accepted into art school in Vienna? Who knows. The reasons behind the conflicts were always there and they are to this day. We should all hope that the leaders of tyrannical regimes are stable people without some sort of hangup that will lead to a shooting war.

I think Gwynne is right on with his general prescription--democratic or representative government of some kind or another. Let us all hope that this is where the Arab Spring leads.
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Philip Reid
A few other things Mick Jagger did not do.

He didn’t stage a coup d'etat of an oil rich country whose population did not benefit from said riches.
He didn’t created a socialist state where there is no unemployment, which has the highest GDP in Africa, where less than 5% of the population is classified as poor and also has fewer people living below the poverty line than for example in Holland.
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Gothome
I always wonder why in some media outlets there's a tendency to represent serial murderers or other disturbed criminals as normal and paint them as the boy next door type. Family members are interviewed as if to give an objective opinion. Oh and grandpa said one would never expect that he could be capable of such things...

Who is Cody Alan Legebokoff? Accused killer seemed like a “perfectly normal” young man.
http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Cody+Alan+Legebokoff+Accused+killer+see...

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Peter Narsted
"Back in the UK, after several months spent in Libya covering NATO war crimes and uncovering mainstream media lies, freelance journalist Lizzie Phelan continues to fight for truth and justice on behalf of the Libyan people. Her testimony below is a gripping example of her commitment.

Lizzie Phelan spent her last days in Libya - where she was reporting for PressTV - trapped in the Rixos Hotel, together with Thierry Meyssan, Mahdi Nazemroaya and two other members of the Voltaire Network team.

She said a Western-backed genocide is taking place in Libya and there are no independent journalists left on the ground to cover the story."

http://tinyurl.com/6dp2oho
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jansumi
aloo gobi - I wish I could press 'agree' many times over on your post. Thank you so much for explaining Gwynne to the naive and under-read (who Are these people?) who comment without any clue about the context through which he operates. He and Robert Fisk keep me sane.
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miguel
"He was always a quiet boy".

A former neighbour.
Miguel
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Leone
You people praising Gadhafi because he made the trains run on time need to be reminded that they also ran on time in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The order instilled by a dictator comes at a price, and those that paid it in Libya are being found in mass graves.
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Jack Green
Emily Mutter: You are a moron.

a) You failed to understand this article. It is a really simple article. Come on. Cheeky analysis of the day's news, funny comparison to Jagger and we're done. It's not complicated, and it's not something you throw a temper tantrum over.
b) Gwynne Dyer is not a 'she'. Gwynne Dyer is a he. And he is a really fantastic journalist. Don't be a douchebag.

Cheers!
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