Why Gaddafi was the quintessential 20th-century dictator

The Arab revolutions of 2011 have claimed their third dictator, but the death of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi is not just the end of another strongman. Even in his downfall, Gaddafi had to be different: While Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stands on trial, Gaddafi sought to cling to power to the end and died in the streets of Sirte, his home town.

His demise means more than the conclusion of his brutal 42-year reign and the beginning of Libya’s best chance at a democratic future. It is also the turning of a page in the annals of tyranny. Gaddafi was one of the last of a nearly extinct breed — the uniquely 20th-century dictator.

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He certainly could play the part. Gaddafi will probably be best remembered for the figure he cut: a bizarre, mercurial oddball with dark sunglasses, wacky outfits and gelled hair. His idiosyncrasies were legendary: When he traveled, he stayed in a luxurious Bedouin tent and — like some bad Bond villain — had an entourage that included female bodyguards and a busty Ukrainian nurse.

His speeches were as long-winded as they were unintelligible. (His 2009 address at the United Nations, slated for 15 minutes, ran an hour and a half.) His ideas, if that is the right word, will be forever preserved in the Green Book, his slim political treatise that he claimed spelled out an alternative to capitalism and communism. What it was, in fact, was a pocket-size totem to his megalomania. Schoolchildren were forced to commit passages to memory; its banal and bizarre aphorisms were plastered on billboards and broadcast on radio and television each day.

Of course, the 20th-century tyrant was hardly all style and no substance. Gaddafi, after all, funded the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army and trained would-be autocrats in his dictatorship academies. And he went from terrorism paymaster to participant in 1988 when he ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, a crime that claimed 270 lives.

But the crimes that made Gaddafi a fugitive — that led him to the drainage pipe where he was reportedly hiding when captured — were those he committed against his fellow Libyans. It was his style of rule, rather than his personal tastes or even international terrorism, that made him a 20th-century totalitarian throwback.

As bizarre as he may have seemed to foreign eyes, it was his brutality at home that marked him to those who knew him best. Even among the closeted regimes of the Middle East, Libya was notoriously repressive. Gaddafi’s police state tolerated no independent press, civil society or political opposition. The security apparatus was pervasive, its membership as high as 20 percent of the population, by some estimates. Publicly criticizing Gaddafi or the regime was a death-defying act.

Long before the Arab Spring, and long before the rebels tossed the Brother Leader like a rag doll in the streets, smarter and savvier autocrats had decided that it was too costly, too risky, to be the type of dictator Gaddafi had become. Other strongmen may be repressive, but they cleverly mask that repression behind a facade of legality, procedure and process.

Vladimir Putin, for example, doesn’t simply ensconce himself in the Kremlin for all time. Rather, he observes the country’s constitution by completing two terms as president, handpicking a weaker successor in Dmitry Medvedev and then planning to “return” to office in 2012. Assuming he serves two more terms, Putin could be the de facto leader of Russia for 24 years — and claim never to have acted undemocratically.

Or take Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, one authoritarian leader who publicly stood beside Gaddafi to the bitter end. From a distance, you could be forgiven for confusing Venezuela with a democracy. People openly criticize the government, there are boisterous political parties, and voters can cast ballots at the local, state and national level. But Chavez and his cronies have invented their own formula for manipulating elections — call it dictatorial gerrymandering — to make sure the final outcome usually favors him. When he doesn’t like the results (as in the September 2010 legislative elections that reduced the size of his majority), he can simply sideline the National Assembly by having it grant him decree powers for the next 18 months. Today, Chavez commands every branch of government, but he does so in the name of democracy.

Even the Chinese Communist Party, which brooks no dissent about its right to rule, has relaxed its grip on most of its society. The personal freedoms and privileges of China’s citizens have grown as the party has exchanged its interest in “socialist purity” with wealth creation.

What all of these 21st-century authoritarian leaders understand is that the costs of pure dictatorship have become too high, so they work to achieve similar goals — regime survival — through more sophisticated and subtle means. Gaddafi’s paranoid police state was increasingly incompatible with this modern world. Among the current crop of repressive regimes, Kim Jong Il’s Hermit Kingdom remains the truest bastion of old-school totalitarianism.

Gaddafi — some say under the influence of his Western-educated son Seif al-Islam — may have begun to learn this lesson late in life. The dictator-as-international-pariah routine had grown thin and expensive as Libya’s isolation left it in economic shambles. In 2003, Tripoli accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, and shortly afterward pledged to abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. It was the first sign of a more sophisticated approach to the West. With international sanctions lifted, Gaddafi was soon opening the oil-dependent economy, inviting foreign investment, even applying to join the World Trade Organization. The outlaw sought to refurbish his image and rejoin the family of nations. But for Libyans, his rule remained every bit as dark and draconian.

Dictators, whether czars, kings, generals, sultans, mullahs or something else, have been with us for time immemorial. But the classic narcissistic totalitarian was a distinctly 20th-century phenomenon. We probably won’t see the likes of Gaddafi again anytime soon. And now, in one death, life begins for millions.

William J. Dobson, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and senior editor for Asia at Newsweek International, is writing a book about dictatorships.

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