In his last act, the “mad dog of the Middle East” held true to expectations.
The exact circumstances of the killing of Moammar Gaddafi are not yet clear. But his death came as fighters overran his last major stronghold; al-Jazeera released a picture purporting to show the colonel’s bloodied face.
It does not appear to have been a quiet ending — nor did many believe it would be.
Even before the United States and its allies intervened in Libya, American officials and the foreign policy establishment worried that Gaddafi wouldn’t go down without a fight. And even after the creation of the Transitional National Council, the fall of Tripoli, and the former Libyan leader’s disappearance, there was a sense that a bloody battle was on the way.
One senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity last week, said that Gaddafi’s flamboyant personality and considerable ego meant he was unlikely to surrender.
“He’s such a drama king,” the intelligence official said, adding that he thought it likely that Gaddafi would “want to go down with the ship.”
Gaddafi’s end, in other words, would not come like that of Hosni Mubarak, who stepped aside and found himself in a cage. He would not be taken quietly like Saddam Hussein, discovered in a hole and later hanged. He would not be stood up in front of a tribunal at The Hague like Slobodan Milosevic.
U.S. officials did not get everything right about Libya. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, for instance, told Congress he believed that Gaddafi would prevail in his fight with rebels if the fighting dragged out.
Libya experts, too, were sometimes caught off guard. Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst for Rand Corp., was among those who predicted the fall of Tripoli soon after the uprising spread in Benghazi.
“I think this whole drama — much of it — unfolded in a very, very unexpected way,” said Wehrey.
But in other ways, there were signs of what was to come, from the fragility of the rebel coalition to the risk of weapons flooding across the border. Most of all, there was an expectation that Gaddafi would fight on.
There was a reason that Ronald Reagan called him the “mad dog of the Middle East” — he was erratic and eccentric. Above all, experts said, he did what it took to stay alive.
“He’s perfected a persona, and part of that was to be strategically unpredictable," Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told our colleague Peter Finn not long ago.
What happens now that Gaddafi gone is unclear.
The senior intelligence official said that U.S. spy agencies did not think that Libya would tumble into a protracted civil war after Gaddafi’s fall.
“I don’t think Libya is heading for anything like we saw in Iraq,” the official said. But, he added, there is doubt among analysts that the country can stay in tact with its existing borders, noting that Libya disparate populations had been fastened together mainly by force of personality in the past.
Indeed, experts agree that the former Libyan leader’s long and bizarre rule means the rebuilding Libya will not be easy.
Over 40 years, he dismantled the organized infrastructure of the state, said Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. There was no civil society, no free press, no education system, no local government.
“Rebuilding Libya into a modern state,” Boucek said, “will be a monumental undertaking.”
Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.