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Qaddafi Under Siege

A political psychologist assesses Libya's mercurial leader.

The rambling statements of Muammar al-Qaddafi since the uprising in Libya began on Feb. 17 have led many to characterize the idiosyncratic Libyan leader as a madman, psychotic, out of touch with reality. Among the statements made by Qaddafi that have led observers to question his sanity are his characterization of the rebels as "drug-crazed youth" whose Nescafé the United States plied with hallucinogenic drugs. He also accused al Qaeda of being behind the rebellion, only to then again accuse the United States. In his first media interview on Feb. 28 since the uprising began, with BBC, ABC, and the Sunday Times, when asked about his countrymen rising against him, Qaddafi denied it:

"There are no demonstrations at all in the streets. Did you see the demonstrations? Where? They are supporting us. They are not against us. There is no one against us. Against me for what? Because I am not president. They love me. All my people are with me. They love me all. They will die to protect me, my people."

This led many to conclude that he was denying reality. He also went on a rant blaming al Qaeda:

"It is Qaeda, it is Qaeda, it is Qaeda, not my people. It is Qaeda, Qaeda, Qaeda, yes. They came from outside. It's al Qaeda. They went into military bases and seized arms and they're terrorizing the people. The people who had the weapons were the youngsters. They're starting to lay down their weapons now as the drugs that al Qaeda gave them wear off."

When he was asked in the interview whether he would step down, Qaddafi again denied that he has any authority:

"If they want me to step down, what do I step down from? I'm not a monarch or a king. It's honorary. It has nothing to with exercising power or authority. In Britain, who has the power? Is it Queen Elizabeth or David Cameron?"

Most recently Qaddafi indicated that the rebellion was the result of a conspiracy by the West to recolonize Libya in order to gain control of its oil.

Characterizations of being psychotic have been leveled at Qaddafi since he took over the reins of Libya in a bloodless coup in 1969 at the age of 27. A Time magazine article from April 1986 quoted U.S. President Ronald Reagan as calling him "the mad dog of the Middle East." But for the most part, during his 42 years at the helm of Libya, he has been crazy like a fox.

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. And right now, he is under the most stress he has been under since taking over the leadership of Libya. Thus, the quotes elaborated above probably accurately reflect his true beliefs. He does sincerely cling to the idea that his people all love him.

Qaddafi's strong anti-authority bent and his tendency to identify with the underdog can be traced back to his childhood. He was born in a tent in the desert to a Bedouin family in 1942. When Qaddafi was 10 years old, Gamal Abdel Nasser took over the reins of Egypt at the head of the Free Officers Movement, which made a deep and lasting impression on the young Qaddafi. He initially attended a Muslim school, where he was recognized as being very bright, and was sent to Tripoli to continue his education, but was teased by the children of the cosmopolitan elite for his coarse manners, leaving him with a bitter resentment of the establishment.

In Libya at that time, a military career provided an opportunity for upward mobility, and Qaddafi entered the Libyan military academy in Benghazi in 1961. Nasser and his revolutionary nationalism assumed a heroic stature in the mind of Qaddafi and his fellow students. He first began to think of organizing a military coup against the corrupt regime of King Idris while in military college, and on Sept. 1, 1969, with a small group of junior military officers, formed Libya's own Free Officers Movement and successfully led a bloodless coup to depose the king.

From the very beginnings of his leadership of the junta known as the Revolutionary Command Council, the deeply anti-establishment Qaddafi actively supported groups that he considered underdogs, who represented themselves as attacking imperialism. He became one of the world's most notorious supporters of terrorist groups around the world, with no particular benefit to Libya. His support of terrorism was both wide and deep. He sent arms to the Irish Republican Army, provided financial support to the social revolutionary group FARC in Colombia, and to the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. He reportedly provided major financial support to the "Black September" organization responsible for the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He praised the terrorist attack by the Japanese Red Army on the Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, urged Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out attacks on Israel, and offered to provide financial support and training.

Following Nasser's lead, he attempted to create a pan-Arab nation, merging first with Egypt and Syria, and then later attempting to merge with Tunisia, but his would-be partners were quick to discover that to merge with Libya was to be taken over by Qaddafi, leading to the swift failure of these proposed unions. In Qaddafi's modest view, he and Libya were at the very center of three overlapping circles: the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the Third World.

Reflecting his deep antipathy to formal authority, Qaddafi not only disclaimed any formal title, but institutionalized this as a governing philosophy in what he called a "popular democracy," later "Islamic socialism." Dismantling parties and institutions, he formed "people's committees" across the country to establish a direct democracy. This principle was codified in the three slim volumes of his Green Book, the quixotic tome on political philosophy he published in 1976. Then, in 1977, at Qaddafi's bidding, the General People's Congress, which was in effect a committee of committees, conferred upon him the honorific title of permanent "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya," (jamahiriya is loosely translated as democracy of the masses or state of the masses, with no formal organizations other than the "people's committees"). In this democracy of the masses, Qaddafi would have no formal leadership role. This was the basis for Qaddafi's explanation in his Feb. 28 press conference that he can't resign because he has no official position.

After the revolution, Libya nationalized some 70 percent of the oil companies operating in Libya, including British Petroleum and Continental Oil, and joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with a resultant large increase of oil revenues for Libya. Using Libya's petroleum wealth, Qaddafi not only bankrolled terrorists, but almost indiscriminately funded rogue leaders around the world, including Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Empire, Haile Mengistu of Ethiopia, and Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

In reviewing Qaddafi's career, two things stand out. A consistent theme is his identification with the underdog, standing up against authority. And while he eschews the titles of power, he has, in fact, been quite ruthless in eliminating any threats to his own power. It has been estimated that some 10 to 20 percent of the Libyan population works for the people's committees, identifying threats to his power, dissidents, and regime critics, and eliminating them, forming a network of secret informers rivaling that of Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, and the East German Stasi. So sensitive to plots is his regime that even to engage in a discussion with a foreigner is a crime punishable by three years in prison. The fear of dissidents includes those living abroad, who have sought the sanctuary of exile, and he has dispatched assassination teams abroad to silence outspoken anti-Libyan dissidents, for example shooting at 10 anti-Qaddafi protesters in Britain in 1984. And his reach extended to the United States: In 1980, he attempted to assassinate a Libyan graduate student at the University of Colorado, seriously wounding him, and killed a Libyan exile just before his U.S. citizenship ceremony in 1990. Amnesty International once estimated that Libya carried out at least 25 assassinations abroad in the 1980s.

In Qaddafi's constellation of enemies, the United States was to occupy a special role. To have the courage to stand up to the world's only superpower would surely magnify his stature. And stand up he did. Reagan recalled in his diaries that Qaddafi mounted an assassination plot against him in November 1981. In early 1986, when Qaddafi declared the Gulf of Sidra as Libya's territory, which extended some 200 miles beyond the coast, and threatened attacks against anyone who dared to cross "the line of death," the U.S. Navy carried out a longstanding planned exercise that indeed crossed the line. Qaddafi sent two sorties of jets against the American fleet, which were promptly shot down. Qaddafi then thanked the United States for making him "a hero to the Third World."

Later that year, Libyan agents bombed the La Belle disco in West Berlin, a favorite hangout for the U.S. military, killing three and wounding 229. Intercepts revealed this was a Libyan plot, providing Reagan the long-sought "smoking gun" to fulfill his inaugural commitment to make attacking terrorism his No. 1 priority. The United States mounted a bombing raid against Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in reprisal. Qaddafi claimed his adopted daughter was killed in the raid. Now, Qaddafi was fully engaged with his arch enemy. A year later, a Japanese Red Army terrorist, hired by Qaddafi, was apprehended at a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike with three pipe bombs discovered in his car. According to a February 1989 article in the New York Times, he intended to set them off in a Navy recruiting station in New York City on the first anniversary of the U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli. In 1988, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 occurred over Lockerbie, Scotland, a flight filled with American students returning home after study abroad, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. Meticulous forensic examination traced the bomb back to Libya, leading to U.N. economic and political sanctions in 1992, which bit deeply, leading to Libya's economic and political isolation. The Libyan associate minister of justice, who recently defected, has confirmed that it was Qaddafi himself who gave the orders.

In 2003, the U.N. Security Council made the lifting of the sanctions contingent on Libya's accepting responsibility for the actions of its officials and payment of up to $2.7 billion in compensation for the victims of the 1988 attack. Libya watchers believe that his son and designated successor Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and was considered more worldly than his father, persuaded the colonel to agree to the compensation and abandon Libya's weapons of mass destruction program. (The question of whether the Ph.D. dissertation was ghostwritten and partially plagiarized is now under investigation.) This decision led to the lifting of the sanctions, ending Libya's diplomatic isolation. It represented a rare example of Qaddafi being able to exercise wisdom in pursuit of Libya's international position. But it did not exhaust his fondness for the United States as adversary. In 2009, Qaddafi found common cause with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez to propose a South Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter NATO.

The recent violence against unarmed civilians has disaffected many within Qaddafi's diplomatic corps and the military. What began as a small stream has now become a virtual river of resignations and defections, perhaps attempting to dissociate themselves from a regime accused by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of "serious transgressions of international human rights and humanitarian law." Several senior military officers are now leading the rebel forces, and the former ambassador to India, Ali Assawi, has now become the foreign minister for the new rebel shadow government, the Libyan National Council, which is headed by Qaddafi's former justice minister.

Throughout his life and career, Qaddafi has lived out his core psychological value, that of the outsider standing up against superior authority, the Muslim warrior courageously confronting insurmountable odds. A man does not mellow with age, especially a highly narcissistic leader consumed by dreams of glory. Indeed, as a man grows older, he becomes more like himself. But as the stress has mounted, Qaddafi seems increasingly to have lost touch with reality. Having dedicated his life to Libya, his creation, he finds it inconceivable that his people are not all grateful to him, and when he says his people all love him, he believes it. And therefore, anyone contesting his authority must be responding to foreign agents from the United States or al Qaeda. When he says he will fight to the "last drop of his blood," he means it. Qaddafi will not commit suicide nor slink away to a lush exile.

When he speaks of "my country," he means it literally. Qaddafi is Libya and a Libya without him at the helm is unimaginable to him. In an article in the Economist magazine from February 2011, he is quoted as having declared that "I was the one who created Libya, and I will be the one to destroy it." The West should take this statement very seriously. Qaddafi is indeed prepared to go down in flames, and the question is how many of his supporters are prepared to fight to "the last drop of blood."

MANOOCHER DEGHATI/AFP/Getty Images

Profile

The Ghosts of Duvalier

Baby Doc's return to Haiti is a potent reminder that his legacy of poverty and corruption lives on.

Perhaps the best way to understand former Haitian dictator and would-be president-for-life Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's quixotic return to his homeland after 25 years in exile in France is through William Faulkner's classic observation that "The past is never dead. It's not even the past."

What better proof than the stunning spectacle of the once porky, now gaunt 59-year-old shuffling from the airport after a perfunctory meeting with the cooperative immigration officials who accepted his expired diplomatic passport, and the police convoy that protected him on his route to his luxurious Karibe Hotel in a Port-au-Prince suburb, where he stood on the balcony and waved regally to beaming supporters and bemused journalists? A quarter-century earlier, this man had fled Haiti under military guard, reviled by his people and a pariah to the international community.

But Duvalier left behind Duvalierism, a system of government too profoundly entrenched to truly eradicate. And it's Duvalierism, with or without its figurehead, that explains, among other tragedies, the near paralysis of the René Préval government's response to the 2010 earthquake that killed nearly 300,000, decimated the civil service, smashed buildings, and obliterated the landscape. More recently, it explains the government's attempt to pervert the electoral process by engineering the victory of Jude Celestin, Préval's protégé.

Papa Doc Duvalier, Jean-Claude's father, was a workaholic dictator who micromanaged every aspect of his country's life. He ruthlessly eliminated opponents, imprisoning, torturing, and killing -- driving hundreds of thousands into foreign exile. Because he distrusted and feared the army, he emasculated its leadership, unified the services under his personal direction and authority as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and created an elite presidential guard who depended for their jobs and lives on their absolute loyalty to him.

To secure and control the nation, Duvalier developed an armed civilian militia widely known as the Tonton Macoutes, the bogeymen of Haitian folk belief who prowled at night in search of bad little boys and girls. The goon squad or secret police had been part of Haitian society since the slave patrols. Duvalier's genius lay in how he designed their hierarchical structure, chose their (usually humble) social origins, and included priests (voodoon and Christian) and rural section chiefs who ruled their fiefdoms with iron fists and reported personally to him any subversive activity or even thought.

Under Duvalierism, environmental degradation went unchecked. Poor farmers chopped down trees to make the charcoal that was their cooking fuel, and deforestation and eroding soil hastened the loss of fertile topsoil and led to both drought and flooding. Throughout Haiti, rivers ran brown, riverbeds emptied, wells ran dry.

Duvalierism fed on the people's poverty, which he showcased to the international world to attract aid and loans that rarely reached their intended beneficiaries. The chosen few -- Duvalierist officials, friends, loyalists, and the cautious, sometimes persecuted, and often complicit elite -- reaped the rewards of the corruption at the heart of Duvalierism. Other Haitians survived, and increasingly, the rural population relocated from the hungry countryside to the possibilities of bustling cities.

In 1971, after Papa Doc died in his bed, 19-year-old playboy Jean-Claude inherited his father's legacy and Haiti's presidency-for-life. He delegated its management to family friends and, as he grew older, his own friends. His kleptomania fueled increasingly brazen thefts of state funds, millions spent on lavish living, millions more stashed in foreign bank accounts. (Of the estimated $300 million to $900 million stolen during his regime, only $5.9 million remains. Had the earthquake happened on Jan. 13, 2010, that money would have been Duvalier's; on Jan. 12, hours before the disaster, Switzerland's highest court ruled that the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes had expired. The Swiss government raced into action, freezing the money, which may yet be returned to Haiti.)

Jean-Claude also encouraged the development of industrial parks where foreigners could operate assembly industries such as textiles, baseballs, and electronics. This accelerated a steady migration into the cities, where the growing population was jampacked into shoddy housing in urban slums built with no infrastructure and condemned to a perpetual search for water, food, fuel, transportation, medical care, and employment. The corruption that permeated the Haitian state extended to the construction industry, which ignored building codes and bribed inspectors who overlooked flawed structures that would later crumble in the earthquake.

By the time he was forced to flee in 1986 under U.S. pressure amid uprisings throughout Haiti, Jean-Claude's Duvalierism had bankrupted the Haitian state and enshrined corruption and incompetence in the government and civil service. Subsequent leaders, notably the democratically elected and initially wildly popular Jean-Bertrand Aristide, struggled against their toxic legacy, mostly unsuccessfully. In January 2010, the consequences of those failures kept alive the past that isn't yet past, which is why an extraordinarily high number of Haitians were killed, injured, and made homeless -- a mortality rate worsened by destroyed roads, impenetrable congestion, leadership paralysis, and foreign aid that created blockages and confusion as well as salvage and succor.

And then, on Jan. 17, 2011, Air France disgorged the disgraced ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier onto Haitian soil, and here's where Faulkner comes in, because hundreds of Haitians cheered Duvalier. One man (surely paid for his services) inexplicably held a teddy bear aloft. And residents of tentcamps and other Haitians, and even members of the diaspora, surprised journalists by reminding them that under the Duvaliers you could walk safely through the streets, things were not so expensive, and in Papa Doc's day, medical care was free. Perhaps Jean-Claude might just be "the breath of fresh air" everyone longed for, the man who could guide -- make that replace! -- the unloved politicians they blame for Haiti's current conditions of misery and suffering.

What explains this surprisingly ambivalent reaction to a brutal dictator back in their midst? Let's look at Haiti's demographics. Well over half of its population, mean age 20.2 years, never lived under either Duvalier. In the turmoil of presidencies, military interventions, earthquake, and cholera, the Duvaliers are little more than murky memories recalled by family and friends, and by the country's ubiquitous radio talk shows. What they hear now is that Duvalier fell onto his knees to kiss Haitian soil and, being "deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," has come home to help. (Let's not forget that in France, taxi drivers and other expatriate Haitians support the never-employed Duvalier in a modest apartment.)

But this nostalgia is not ubiquitous. A large contingent of Haitians remains committed to Aristide and his shattered dreams. Others place their hopes in other leaders or are too beaten down to care. Some, like Canada's former governor general, Michaëlle Jean, whose family fled Papa Doc's Haiti after her father was tortured, are horrified at Jean-Claude's return. Jean-Claude Bajeux, a pro-democracy activist exiled under Papa Doc, recalls: "[Y]ou had no way to defend yourself in court, no protection, and you could be killed any time if the president decided it was convenient, or take your wife or your husband and all your property."

And so why has Duvalier come back? First, he is more nostalgic than anyone for the past and is personally deluded enough to dream that the disorganized Party for National Unity, Papa Doc's resuscitated old party, may lead him back to the collapsed National Palace. Over the years, he has made no secret of his desire to lead Haiti again, so that he can rectify the misdeeds -- he hints darkly at misuse of international funds -- of his successors. Secondly, he apparently believes that he committed no crimes and dismisses the possibility of being successfully prosecuted. Lastly, his physical degeneration has sparked persistent rumors that he is terminally ill and has come home to die.

The larger question is why the Préval government permitted, indeed facilitated his return. Was it to thumb its collective nose at the international community that has just rejected the recent electoral results? Was it to curry favor with the Duvalierist forces Préval had long fought against? Is it some sort of charade to warn away Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- still in exile in South Africa -- whose return would have so much more legitimacy than Duvalier's?

On his second day home, the police politely escorted Jean-Claude to the courthouse where he was charged with corruption, theft, and misappropriation of funds. As crowds waited outside, pro- and anti-Duvalier demonstrators hurled insults and protested. Soon after came the reek of tear gas. But Jean-Claude was not detained, and he returned to the Karibe Hotel.

Just before he fled Haiti, back in 1986, Duvalier took to the radio and denied he was going. "The president is here, stronger than ever, as strong even as a monkey's tail," he intoned. Le plus ça change … or as Faulkner knew so well, the past is still very much with us.

--/AFP/Getty Images