The fall of Moammar Gaddafi ends the rule of one of the most mercurial and menacing figures in recent history — the “mad dog” sponsor of international terrorism who allied himself with the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror; the pan-Arabist who at one time or another alienated nearly all of his Arab brethren; and the self-styled revolutionary philosopher who, in the end, was just another violent dictator clinging to power.
With his trademark sunglasses, flowing robes and jut-jawed insouciance, Col. Gaddafi — he bestowed the rank on himself after seizing power in 1969 — has long been one of the world’s more recognizable figures. For many Americans, he is also the reviled author of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. And in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, fearing U.S. anger and needing international investment after years of sanctions, Gaddafi made himself over as a friend of the West, disavowing weapons of mass destruction and sharing intelligence on al-Qaeda.
In more than 40 years as leader of Libya, Moammar Gaddafi has bedeviled, but also surprised the world. But has his grip on power finally been loosened by the wave of popular uprisings washing over the Arab world? (Aug. 22)
Timeline: Gaddafi’s 41-year-long rule
View the timeline
Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, called Gaddafi a “conspirator” who thought it important that “nobody could guess what he could do next.” Gaddafi exploited his unpredictability to keep his enemies off balance, and he reportedly survived numerous plots and assassination attempts to become one of the longest-serving rulers in the world until rebels drove him from power this week.
In “Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction,” Libyan political scientist Mansour O. El-Kikhia wrote: “The rules of the game in Libya continually change,” and Gaddafi’s “genius . . . is his ability to maintain and manipulate this chaos . . . because the survival of his regime hinges on continued turbulence.”
Gaddafi never lost his reputation for eccentricity, traveling overseas with a swaggering, all-female security detail and pushing for such seemingly quixotic goals as the abolition of Switzerland. In his first visit to the United States, for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, he called in a rambling 90-minute speech for the unification of Israel and the Palestinian territories in a state he called “Isratine.”
The rapprochement with the West culminated that year when Gaddafi was invited as a guest to a summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial countries in Italy. He even shook hands with President Obama.
But there was little internal political reform to match the diplomatic offensive. Gaddafi continued his one-man rule atop a system that purported to delegate power to “people’s committees,” which he championed in his “Green Book.” He claimed to have relinquished power in 1977 and said Libya was “self-managed by the people.” In fact, his security forces quickly crushed any hint of dissent.
“I consider it a guide for all humanity,” Gaddafi said of his manifesto in a rare interview with Western reporters in 2004. “One day, the whole world will be a republic of masses, topple down all governments and parliaments.”