Dirk Vandewalle Peers Inside Gadhafi's World

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Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, gives an inside look at Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his 42-year rule. Vandewalle has studied and written about Libya since the 1980s. In 1986 he lived in Libya for 14 months, the only Western scholar there at the time.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After Gadhafi, how does a country recover from 40 years of destruction by an unchallenged tyrant? That's the title of an article in the current edition of Newsweek by my guest, Dirk Vandewalle. We're going to talk with him about how Libya got to this point: a state with no political parties, no parliament, led by a tyrant famous for his iron grip on power, his eccentric clothes and his bizarre rants.

Vandewalle's insights are based in part on the research he conducted in Libya. He lived there for 14 months, beginning in 1986, and he's returned every year or two since. He's the author of "A History of Modern Libya" and edited "Libya Since 1969: Qadhafi's Revolution Revisited." Vandewalle is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Dirk Vandewalle, welcome to FRESH AIR. So as one of the few political scientists who's actually lived in Libya, having watched Gadhafi from inside Libya, do you think that he's mentally ill?

Professor DIRK VANDEWALLE (Government, Dartmouth College; Author): Well, I'm not sure if he's mentally ill, but the whole problem with Gadhafi was, in many ways, that here was a dictator that had never really been challenged by everybody - by anybody for over 40 years, somebody whose words could not be questioned. Every utterance that he said was seen as the ultimate truth, and it was published in many publications inside Libya.

They kept a national archive, essentially, to preserve the words of Gadhafi in annual volumes that they printed. So, in a sense, he was living totally isolated.

No one was there to really tell him exactly what was going on. And I think after a while, he just started to internalize that and thought that, indeed, what he said was the ultimate truth. And since there was no one to really correct him, he just kept using these kinds of words, these kinds of expressions, which were, in a sense, totally surreal, in many ways, and indeed has been using those until the very end now.

Even now in Tripoli, where he is right now, he still uses the same kind of language, the same kind of martyr complex comes through that we heard all along.

GROSS: Yeah, like for instance, he recently said: Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said let them die are launching a campaign over cell phones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers.

Gave them drugs? I mean, what's he talking about?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, in a sense, what all of this goes back is really - and you will see repeated references to this throughout Gadhafi's speeches. It really goes back to the colonial period.

And one of the heroes of Gadhafi was Omar al-Mukhtar, a tribal elder in the eastern part of the country, who eventually was captured by the Italians after several years of resistance and was hanged by the Italians, became the national hero.

And there has always been a charge, been - that it was with the help of some Libyans, a fifth column, that Omar al-Mukhtar was eventually captured and hanged. And so Gadhafi's references to people who are poisoning others in Libya really goes back to that very moment in history, which is now, of course, 80 years or so ago.

But we find that kind of apocalyptic language, that if Libya doesn't really rally around the flag, so to speak, that in a sense, these fifth columns - and now the fifth columns really are the United States, the West in general, Islamic - radical Islamic movements, more generally -that this fifth column will come and destroy - will act as a poison, as a drug for Libyans and will lead them astray. That's really the historical context of that kind of contemporary language that we hear from Gadhafi.

GROSS: Now, you said you heard Gadhafi say a lot of surreal things that were later, like, printed and preserved. Can you give us an example of that?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, the best example, of course, was the "Green Book." And the "Green Book" was a collection of three slim volumes in which Gadhafi essentially put his thoughts on the economy, on social relations, on the role of women within Libyan society, et cetera.

And these "Green Books" became obligated reading for most Libyans. You saw them everywhere. You saw statues built around the "Green Book," and so on. And these kinds of ideas - which, in a sense, were pretty strange, in part because, for example, one concept that Gadhafi developed was this concept of democracy.

And according to him, democracy could only really take place if it was in a kind of tribal setting, where people could directly appoint their representatives, rather than having to go through a kind of representative system that we have in the West.

And so this kind of what he called a direct democracy - and he actually coined a neologism for it. He called it a Jamahiriya, you know, a state ruled directly by the people, then became this kind of overarching concept, overarching ideological concept that he used again and again, and then tried to implement.

And so on the one hand, there was, at least in principle, a kind of a political structure that functioned according to direct democracy. But then on the other hand, of course, that was really a figment of Gadhafi's imagination, because everybody knew that the formal political mechanism that was there didn't really represent anything. And so here you could see how his words really became reality, and indeed remained reality until very recently.

GROSS: Well, you know, the "Green Book," he actually held the "Green Book" in his hand during one of his recent rants, when he was on TV calling his opponents dogs and cockroaches and promising to squash and kill them. So a lot of people seeing him on TV might have seen him with the "Green Book."

So the "Green Book" was very important to Gadhafi's vision of his revolution, and Jamahiriya, which you mentioned, is his idea of a stateless state. So that's a paradox. How do you have a stateless state?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, I mean, in a sense, what he meant there - and it really coincides very nicely with his idea of a Jamahiriya, and that is that if you have a polity, if you have a political community that is ruled directly by the people, you don't need the institutions of the state. So you don't need the administrative institutions. You don't need the bureaucratic institutions.

GROSS: For example, you don't need parliament. (Laughing) Right, you don't need a legislative body.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Exactly. The argument, of course, is that without these institutions of the state, people govern themselves directly, but by implication, of course, it also means that there really are no checks and balances within that political system.

And that, of course, in a sense, was what Gadhafi equally intended, that he could rise above this political system because he always claimed, for decades now, that he no longer was part of the political system of Libya, that people's democracy functioned without him - and again, here, you know, the bifurcation between what was real and what was really a figment of his imagination.

GROSS: My understanding about his idea of Jamahiriya, the stateless state, was that he would talk to people directly. He would have these regular, formalized meetings with, quote, "the people," and that they'd have direct input through that and, therefore, they were represented. Do I have that right?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Oh, no. You're absolutely right. And indeed, that was the kind of mechanism - you know, as he told his audience, the Libyans, that he was outside the political system, he really became known as (foreign language spoken), which means the leader and the guide.

So he had no more formal - at least according to his own rhetoric, he had no more formal representation in Libya. But he would go around and give these big, long, rambling speeches about what Libya should do, about what the popular committees should do.

And so again, it was really a big divorce from reality. But everyone, of course, was supposed to go to these kinds of speeches. And indeed, not to attend could lead to all kinds of not-so-pleasant consequences.

GROSS: Like what?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: All kinds of things, from the very mundane: losing membership, for example, in the state supermarkets, where a lot of people had to buy their stuff, because at one point Gadhafi abandoned private enterprise in Libya. Again, it had to take place through the community.

All the way to, of course, if there was any kind of public expression of dissent, to incarceration, torture and, indeed, as we now know, also, kind of revenge actions against family members of those who had acted against the regime.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that he took away all the private businesses and created these, like, state-run supermarkets that sold a lot of stuff. So with the justification of his "Green Book," his ideological bible, he took away private businesses. He took away properties from landlords...

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Oh, yes, indeed. The argument he made was that people should only have as much as they need to live. And that is, for example, if you had two or three apartments, you could only live in one, and the other two he saw as exploitation.

And so at one point, there was a famous slogan in the "Green Book" that you saw everywhere in Libya that said: The house belongs to those who live in it. And by that, he meant that you should only have one house, and if by any chance you are renting it, the people that are renting it from you, that's actually their house.

And so what we saw very quickly in Libya, soon after that edict came online, was that a lot of families either got their sons and daughters married to be able to keep houses in the family, or had to abandon houses.

GROSS: And who took it over, the government or the renters?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: They were usually given over to those people who were actually renting it at the time.

GROSS: And Gadhafi also eliminated the practice of private law. Were there other professions that you weren't allowed to practice, as well?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, none of the professions was really allowed to organize. They were allowed to function, but they were not allowed to organize in any meaningful way. So the whole kind of organizational life around professions that we in the West here take for granted really disappeared in Libya.

But that was only representative of what happened within society at large. Any kind of group that could potentially become an opposition, whether it was a stamp-collecting club at the very basic level, all the way to these professional organizations, were not allowed to organize, were not allowed to hold meetings because that could eventually lead to opposition. And opposition, according to a law that has never been repealed in Libya, was treason and hence punishable by death, if needed.

GROSS: And no political parties were allowed.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Oh, absolutely not, because - and in a sense, this was the Orwellian vision that came through here. You could not have political parties because Gadhafi argued that all the people were already represented in his popular committees and popular congresses and this kind of scheme that he had made for people directly representing themselves - so again, you know, reality versus a non-reality to what was surreal, a political system that existed, but really had no meaning and no purpose.


GROSS: How close did you get to Gadhafi? Did you ever, like, meet him? Did you go to his speeches?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Yes. At one point, we interviewed him, and then we also got to actually interview the son, and then at one point, had dinner and so on with Saif al-Islam, the son.

GROSS: And he had been seen as the heir apparent until very recently.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, yes. Saif al-Islam had always been seen as the heir apparent. But I think to any careful observer of Libya, there was something very strange about somebody who called himself a reformer of his father's political system, but really had no political standing in that system, who was where he was because of who his father was and nothing else.

And I met him at one point over dinner, and it was very clear that all of these ideas that he had, in a sense, were not very well-formed. And so it was not so - no surprise to me, then, that what we saw last week, when Saif al-Islam came out in defense of his father, and in kind of a very surreal language, eerily reminiscent of his father, kept invoking the same symbols and the same kind of threats that his father had used for the last 40 years.

In a sense, you know, the big reformer, the would-be reformer that particularly the Western press was so eager to promote turned out to be exactly like his father.

GROSS: He was talking about that there would be rivers of blood if people didn't stop protesting.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Indeed, and again, very reminiscent of what his father had always said. This rivers of blood analogy, really, again, goes back to the colonial period and the blood, you know, that was shed by Libyans during the colonial period.

We shouldn't forget that in eastern Libya, in Cyrenaica, it is estimated that up to half of the local population may have died during the Italian colonial period. So there was an enormous amount of bloodshed. And that image of martyrdom, of blood being shed for the sake of Libya, has been an image - a recurrent image in Gadhafi's ideology and of his sons ever since.

GROSS: So when you interviewed Gadhafi, was he coherent? Like, what was it like to talk with him?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, it was a little bit surreal in that, you know, he had this habit of kind of staring off into space all the time. And there were long pauses in which you didn't know if he had really understood you, or if indeed, he was reflecting on what you were saying.

But then usually the answer that you would get was a very kind of pedestrian answer, or he would simply refer you to the "Green Book." So there wasn't much of substance there, and it was kind of, again, an almost surreal type of interview.

GROSS: Can I ask you a very challenging intellectual question? What was he wearing? (Laughing) His clothes are just so odd. So do you remember what he wore to the interview?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Yes. And, as a matter of fact, interestingly enough, the kind of the changes, the sartorial changes of Gadhafi, can be very clearly pinpointed according to the period in which you talk to him.

And at that particular point in time, he wore what is called a traditional bisht in Libya, which is this kind of wraparound cloak with the Roman fibula at the shoulder - very traditional and, of course, still in line with what most Libyans thought of kind of as a national -the sense of a national community.

Then later on, of course, it devolved into this rather bizarre African dress that he wore and that I think most Libyans could not identify with at all and - as a matter of fact, would make jokes, of course, very silently, about the way he was dressed and the way he behaved in public.

GROSS: So if we can just talk a little bit more about his clothes and what they reflect about him, kind of politically, originally, Gadhafi saw himself as a leader of the Arab world.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Correct.

GROSS: So how did he dress then, and what did those clothes say about how he saw himself politically and globally?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, initially, remember that the big hero of Gadhafi was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt. And Gamal Abdel Nasser came, much like Gadhafi, out of a military tradition. And so during the initial phase, when Gadhafi was talking primarily about Arab socialism and offered Libya and its resources at one point to Nasser, he tended to dress rather nattily, very well, in a pressed military uniform with a swagger stick under his arm.

And so, you know, he very much saw himself as the young military, the younger revolutionary, who would, in a sense, lead the struggle for Arab nationalism and put Libya's resources at the disposal of that revolution.

GROSS: So did he see himself as the head of a pan-Arab world?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Oh, very much so, and that really permeates his initial speeches, at least for the first five or six years. But then, of course, it became quite clear that Libya - which, after all, is a rather inconsequential country when you think of it, a very small population, and except for oil, nothing is really there.

And it became clear that particularly within the Arab community, the Arab world at large, that Gadhafi didn't really didn't have the kind of stature he thought he had. And so in a sense, he started to abandon Arab nationalism. He lashed out against Arab leaders, in part because, in a sense, they were snickering behind his back. He was considered, in a sense, a country bumpkin by many of the Arab leaders.

And at that point, the revolution really kind of turns internal. And it's at that particular point in time that we start - Gadhafi's seen to wear more traditional dress. And that again...

GROSS: Traditional African dress?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: No, no, traditional Arab dress, traditional Libyan dress, the kind of wraparound cloak, you know, with - again, with the Roman fibula at the shoulder.

And that lasted for quite a few years, actually. And we saw kind of a very interesting mixture, because on the one hand, Gadhafi increasingly started to wear civilian clothes, three-piece suits, Western three-piece suits, and for some reason he seemed to prefer white suits. But then he would marry those Western suits with the traditional dress that he wore on top of it. So it was a kind of a juxtaposition, which I think struck many Libyans as rather strange.

And then that second phase really was abandoned later on, when it was very clear that the Arabs would not pursue his vision of Arab nationalism, and he turned toward sub-Saharan Africa to create what he called the union, the African Union, of which, of course, he himself wanted to be the president.

And it's at that point that we start to see him wear some rather strange outfits, very, very colorful, and really sub-Saharan African dress, having nothing to do with Libya at all anymore. And it was really at that point that a lot of Libyans really shook their head in disbelief, kind of snickering again at, you know, a kind of a type of dress that had really nothing to do with Libya at that particular point in time anymore.


GROSS: What is the outfit he's been wearing lately when he's appeared on television?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Actually, he's gone back. Now the one we saw most recently is more, again, of a Libyan outfit. It's a Bedouin outfit. And also the headgear that he wears is very much in a Berber or a Bedouin tradition, I should say.

GROSS: And his father was a Bedouin who lived in a tent and herded camels. Do I have that right?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Yeah. His father was indeed a - well, he was somebody who traveled back and forth across areas of Libya, illiterate, and so there are lots of pictures of Gadhafi with his father before he died in a tent and, of course, the tent then became also one of the symbols of Gadhafi's revolution. Again, a sign or a kind of an indication that he wanted to be what he saw as his roots, so to speak, within the Bedouin population of Libya.

GROSS: But, again, correct me if I'm wrong, when he'd go to a foreign country and meet with leaders there, he'd pitch a tent in the city and insist that he had to sleep in the tent.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Yes, indeed. He insisted always on taking a tent with him. Now this was no ordinary tent. This was a bulletproof tent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I didn't know they made such things.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, I did not either until I actually found out. But the point was, of course, that this was an enormously heavy tent by implication, and so it would necessitate a special airplane to fly the tent into wherever Gadhafi went.

I saw this happen, for example, when he flew into Brussels for a meeting with European Union officials. But in a sense that wasn't the strangest thing because he also sometimes insisted on bringing two or three camels along with the tent and that, of course, riled up a lot of officials wherever he went.

GROSS: So the camels would be flown in?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Yes, the camels would be flown in and would be tethered to the tent.

GROSS: So what was this about? Do you have any idea? Was this an expression of his roots? Was he paranoid about hotels so he'd only sleep in his own tent?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Oh, no, no, no. This was very much an expression of him going back to his root. He very much, as he again repeated in the last speeches we've heard, he very much saw himself as a Bedu, you know, as a traditional person from the desert. And the argument was, or at least the argument Gadhafi made was that men of the desert are very simple, they have very simple and clear morals and they live in a sense by their wits.

And so in a sense he was trying to emulate what he saw, all of these noble characteristics of the traditional Arab. You know, an image in a sense when you think of it that most Arabs themselves would not really recognize anymore at this particular point in time.

GROSS: Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, has said that he learned about bunga-bunga sex parties from Gadhafi. And I'm wondering like, did Gadhafi ever pass himself off as a devout man? Were these like sex parties that I guess he was famous for, and traveling with the Ukrainian nurse who seemed to be his lover, if I read all that correctly - was that seen as hypocritical because he passed himself off as devout, or was religion not an issue with him?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: I think we have to deal with a great deal of suspicion, these allegations. Gadhafi himself as far as I know, there were never these kinds of allegations and certainly, I've never heard those kinds of stories in Libya. If they come from Berlusconi I would tend to treat this with not only a grain of salt but a scoop of salt.

And the whole point about the amazons, as they were called, the female guards around Gadhafi and so on, was in a sense Gadhafi's attempt to improve the situation of Libyan women, and so he created a military academy specifically for women and so on. I tend to treat with great suspicion, as I said, all these allegations of Gadhafi's involvement with women, in part because there simply is no real record of that. He was a pretty austere man, as we know from one of the WikiLeak cables, and he was also a very devout Muslim. Indeed, most of the pictures that you see of him particularly in the first decade after taking over are him praying in the desert.

GROSS: If we can just go back in Libyan history for a moment. Libya had been part of the Ottoman Empire. From 1911 to '43 it was an Italian colony. After World War II, the country of Libya was created by the Western powers who won the war. And then in, was it '63, that Gadhafi leads the revolution?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: No, '69.

GROSS: '69, Gadhafi leads the revolution that overturns the monarch who had ruled after World War II. What was Gadhafi about then? Can we go back to that 1969 Gadhafi?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Gadhafi in 1969 was a very young captain. He was only 27 years old. And if there is one thing that we need to remember about him at that time, it was that he was very much enamored of particularly Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president who, of course, had been the leading figure in Arab socialism. Arab socialism that was meant to bring the Arab nation back to the glory that it had once had. And so Gadhafi in a sense really saw himself as possibly the successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser.

He strongly believed in putting the resources of Libya at the disposal of the Egyptian president and hoped that together they would be able to really implement this vision of Arab nationalism, the kind of grandeur that Gadhafi and Nasser had really wanted Arabs to have.

But unfortunately, Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack in December 1970. And so in a sense the junior partner in that relationship, Gadhafi, was left alone. And there also was at that point no one really who could check his ideological ambitions anymore. Nasser was gone and certainly Nasser could have done so.

But in a sense, you know, we start to see the kind of phenomenon that we will notice much later in Libya and that is that Gadhafi's really out there on his own. By that time no one could really question him anymore. The regime became increasingly authoritarian, protected by all these revolutionary guards and other committees, and other security organizations. And so that initial image of Gadhafi as the defender of Arab nationalism would yield within a decade or so to a disillusionment with Arab nationalism.

GROSS: Was there a period after the revolution that Gadhafi led in 1969 in which he was genuinely seen as a hero for, you know, overturning the monarchy and liberating Libya?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Oh, very much so. And I think that really explains even until today the kind of support that we're still seeing around him in Tripoli, certainly, initially during the early years of the revolution when Gadhafi nationalized the oil industry. But in a sense he brought to Libya a kind of sense of pride that certainly had not existed during the monarchy which was seen as a lackey of the West essentially.

Certainly, at that particular point in time Gadhafi enjoyed a relatively high level of legitimacy and it was added to by the fact that he did have - at least initially - during those early years a certain charisma that really rubbed off on people. And so the level of legitimacy was actually quite high and didn't start to really deteriorate, I would argue, until the late 1970s.

GROSS: And when did he write his "Green Book?"

Prof. VANDEWALLE: "The Green Book" was published in three volumes. The first volume was published in 1975. And in a sense the publication of "The Green Book" was perhaps the first indication that people had that of the kind of strange directives that would come down the pike in the years ahead, and I think also the first point at which some of the legitimacy of the regime was starting to get undercut.


GROSS: So you lived in Libya, you know, off and on. You've visited many times and you lived there off and on for 14 months starting in 1986. Did you live there in fear? Were you worried that you would be, you know, arrested, spied on?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: No. Actually living in Libya was on the one hand very easy. There were lots of difficulties in terms of logistics, in part because it was very difficult sometimes to get food; it was very difficult to find housing. But it was a typical authoritarian/totalitarian state, and that is once you were in the country, once you had gotten a visa, and once you had been approved, the fact that you had that visa in a sense made you invulnerable. No one would dare question you or, you know, put any obstacles in your way because you had been approved and you had been approved at the highest levels. And so it was incredibly easy for me to actually get around in the country, to travel around.

People uniformly were very friendly, very inviting. And so the actual physical research that I had to do was made quite easy. But as I said, the physical conditions of living in Libya at the time, because again remember there was no private sector. There were very few restaurants at the time. They were no cafes or anything. So it became a challenge to really live in the country. And I remember very distinctly that for weeks on end my lunch would consist of a piece of bread and almost nothing else.

GROSS: And what were you researching, the history of Libya?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Yeah. I was looking at the impact of oil revenues and how those oil revenues had been used by the regime to either create or destroy national institutions that would allow the country eventually to really take off economically. And what I found, of course, was that Gadhafi had been utterly destructive. That most of the institutions, the modern institutions of the state, in pursuit of that statelessness that he always claimed that he wanted - that a lot of those institutions really had been destroyed.

GROSS: Libya under Gadhafi was built on such a big lie. He has this "Green Book," his revolutionary text, his revolutionary Bible that preaches this direct input of the people into the government, and the people have no input at all and there's no political system. There's no political parties. There's no parliament but he sets up these revolutionary committees to basically control things and to control the people.

So, like do you think that Gadhafi ever believed the "Green Book?" I mean he'd have to be, talk about cognitive dissonance, to act so differently then what he was preaching, do you think he knew what he was doing?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: I think cognitive dissonance is a very good way to describe the kind of process that Gadhafi was laboring under. But remember again, this was a political system where no one was allowed to say anything to Gadhafi, to question him in any way. And, of course, in a sense he internalized this.

If no one questions your ideas and for 40 years you're allowed to simply talk about it and no one is there to challenge you or to, in any way, engage you in conversation about your ideas then, you know, in a sense it becomes reality.

But it became worse particularly after 2003. And 2003 is really the point where the regime gets rehabilitated. And at that particular point in time there was a publicity - a PR campaign made that would promote the ideas of Gadhafi, to portray Gadhafi, as he himself put it, at a global level as an international thinker. And at that particular point in time they hired a company out of Boston to bring to Libya public intellectuals from the United States and public figures to engage Gadhafi to talk about democracy.

Now, of course, for anybody who had ever even glanced at the "Green Book," the notion that any true intellectual would want to have a conversation with Gadhafi was, of course, purely ridiculous. But several individuals went and, of course, it made Gadhafi appear as the global figure that indeed he wanted to be because here you had, you know, world renowned intellectuals talking to him about the prospect about democracy in Libya, about his concept of democracy. And so in the sense, the West also was at fault by making it appear to Gadhafi as if these ludicrous ideas that he had really had any value. And, of course, in the end, why these individuals went had more to do with money than a real interest in Gadhafi's ideas.

GROSS: You mentioned this was around - this is in 2003 or just after. And it was in 2003 that the United States ended its sanctions against Libya and Libya, in return, gave up its weapons of mass destruction program and it also paid reparations to the families of the people killed on the Pan Am flight that was - that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. So that was the tradeoff. So do you think that the people in, the American government - the Bush administration at the time - believed that Gadhafi had been rehabilitated, that he was a more responsible leader, or was it just a really kind of practical deal that they made?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: I think Washington was always very skeptical of the so-called rehabilitation of Gadhafi. And you saw that very clearly after they declared their weapons of mass destruction. Libya thought that, as a result of that, they would be immediately taken off the list of sponsors of terrorism and would be fully rehabilitated and, in a sense, would become this integrated partner again into an international economy.

Washington, on the other hand, was considerably more skeptical and kept putting a number of demands in front of the Libyans. And eventually, of course, we did reestablish diplomatic relations with Libya. But it was very clear that the United States always remained somewhat skeptical about the regime and about Gadhafi, in general. But then something unexpected happened and that was that Gadhafi, who himself had once been considered as the master terrorist, suddenly became our preferred partner in North Africa in the fight against terrorism.

GROSS: Yes. And how did that happen? Because he'd been considered a sponsor of terrorism and he was implicated in several major terrorist acts. Name a couple.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, of course, Lockerbie, first of all. The La Belle discotheque. Before that...

GROSS: In Germany.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: In Germany. The fact that the regime was channeling weapons to the IRA. I mean there were lots and lots of involvements that the Gadhafi regime had with all kinds of shady organizations, also particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the regime had really tried to destabilize a lot of the local governments.

GROSS: So WikiLeaks released a cable from 2008, from the ambassador -American ambassador in Libya, saying that Libya is a strong partner in the war against terrorism. What did Libya contribute? What did Gadhafi contribute to the war against terrorism?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, the details are not terribly clear here, and so my answer cannot be, in a sense, complete. But what we do know is that Libya provide some information to the United States, particularly on al-Qaida in North Africa. And, of course, by that time the Libyans had gathered quite a bit of information, because remember, the Libyans themselves had tried to destroy the Islamist movements in eastern Libya previous to that, so they had accumulated quite a bit of intelligence, particularly on al-Qaida, and that was what they allegedly turned over to the U.S. government.


GROSS: Now President Mubarak in Egypt said that he was not leaving, no way was he going to leave, he was staying there, the people elected him and he had a responsibility to stay - and then he left. Do you think Gadhafi really will stay till the end, till he's either thrown out or killed? Or do you think, at some point, he might leave, realizing that his time is up?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: I think the big problem for Gadhafi is that he may have nowhere to leave for; that is, he has systematically antagonized all his regional partners. Saudi Arabia, which is kind of the traditional country that deposed dictators go to, certainly would not want Gadhafi because the relationship between King Abdullah and Gadhafi has been very bad for at least a decade. And so I'm not sure what country would be willing, at this particular point in time, particularly since we're likely to see some criminal indictments by the United Nations, that any country would really be willing to take him. And so the kind of surrealism that I described, together with a lack of options, makes me think that he may very well stay till the very end.

GROSS: What do you see - well, first of all, do you think it's inevitable that the Gadhafi regime is going to fall?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: I do think it's inevitable. There are no more options. I think all the personnel around him, even high-level personnel is defecting. Eighty percent of the country is now under the control of rebels. Effectively he no longer has control over the flows of revenues coming from oil. And an international campaign is starting against him, that will isolate him further. So I do think it's a matter of time but it is the endgame for Gadhafi.

GROSS: What do you see happening after Gadhafi?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: In a sense, the real tragedy of Libya has been that Gadhafi has very systematically destroyed whatever institutions were in the country, that the monarchy had tried to create - a kind of an embryonic political system, some bureaucracies and so on. And we shouldn't forget that Libya really was created almost accidentally, as a matter of fact I often refer to it as the accidental state. In part because Libya was created by the great powers after World War II, essentially for the strategic purposes of those great powers. The two main provinces in Libya, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, had very little in common and indeed, after they were put together into the kingdom of Libya, were quite suspicious of each other.

The man who became king was originally from Cyrenaica, from the Zanussi family, and he kept complaining, for example, to the American ambassador at the time, that he didn't want to be king of Libya. He just wanted to be the ruler, the emir of Cyrenaica. Libya was not really unified, truly, until 1963 when legislation was introduced that abandoned the federal formula. And the reason that was done was primarily to provide a sense of property rights for the international oil companies that were drilling and were commercializing oil at the time.

So when you think of it, there is all this kind of history to Libya that hints at the differences between the provinces. And, of course, the big question now is whether or not those differences will resurface, whether tribes in different parts of the country will rise up or create alliances that eventually could make this country break up. Personally, I don't think that will happen. I think all sides have an interest in making sure that the country remains unified, because that's the only way that they can sell their oil on the international market - pipelines and so on are shared. But nevertheless, there could be a lot of contestation in the weeks, the months and the years ahead over what the rights and duties are of these different provinces and of the different tribes within a future Libya.

GROSS: What's at stake - just looking at it provincially for second, what's at stake for the United States in Libya now?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: In a sense, I think the challenge of the United States really goes slightly, also, beyond Libya. And that is what kind of credibility we still have at certain levels in the region. And that is -we've supported, not only Gadhafi but also Mubarak and Ben Ali in Tunisia, in part because we argued that they were a bulwark against radical Islamism and so on. And so we don't know exactly when, particularly, a new government comes into power in Libya, whether or not governments will still share that kind of vision that the United States had. I mean it was an ideal kind of vision to be shared with Gadhafi, because it was one way for him to control his own country. Once we have a new government, of course, we don't know. And my hunch is that, probably, successors to Gadhafi will be a lot more skeptical of this alliance that had been made with the United States, than Gadhafi ever became after 2003.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: My pleasure.

GROSS: Dirk Vandewalle is the author of "A History of Modern Libya. His article "After Gaddafi" is in the current edition of Newsweek. He's an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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GROSS: You know the famous cover photo on the 1963 album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," showing Dylan walking arm in arm with a woman down a Greenwich Village street? The woman, Suze Rotolo, was Dylan's girlfriend at the time. She's died at the age of 67.

On the next FRESH AIR, we listen back to the interview I recorded with her in 2008.

Join us.

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