Libya, a tiny country of deserts with some oil wells, was never a particularly important country, strategically, unless you’re an historian of the Roman Empire, when Libya was the empire’s breadbasket, or of Italian imperialism. In 1969, when Muammar Qaddafi and Abdul Salam Jalloud—who, it seems, recently defected in advance of the deluge—seized power, they were less-than-well-schooled copies of the then-fading Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, who was Qaddafi’s inspiration. Unfortunately, Qaddafi took power as an Arab nationalist at the end of nationalism’s heyday, and never quite figured out to reinvent himself. For a time, he tried to portray himself as the harbinger of the Third Way, halfway between capitalism and communism, but if that inspired anyone at all, it was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who then tried to invent their own version of the Third Way.
And now Qaddafi is gone. A leader who was probably mentally deranged during most or all of his reign, given to mood swings and paranoid outbursts, is no more. That can’t be bad, as far as the long-suffering population of Libya is concerned.
In 1972, when I traveled across Libya, spending time in Tripoli and then hitchhiking across the desert to Benghazi, Libya presented itself as a vast, sand-dune-filled landscape with a Western-built oil industry over the horizon to the south of the coast road. Nearly forty years later, it still is pretty much the same, although by all accounts Benghazi has deteriorated remarkably since then. Qaddafi’s legacy is that of an oil-rich nation with almost no population—now barely 6 million people—suffering in poverty and irrelevance for all these years. Libya, to be sure, is no Dubai or Qatar.
What does Qaddafi’s departure mean? First, what it doesn’t mean is that the United States and NATO are powerful actors in the region. It took nearly six months for the full might of NATO, bombarding every Libyan tank and armored personnel carrier that moved, decimating Qaddafi’s command-and-control system, and serving as the air wing of the fractious Libyan opposition, to clear the way to Tripoli.
And we can all hope and pray that the “Libyan model”—an armed opposition backed by US and NATO air power—isn’t the model for Syria or, worse, Iran. At the very least, President Assad of Syria will look at Libya and draw the appropriate conclusion, namely, that he must at all costs prevent the emergence of a Syrian “Benghazi.” For Ayatollah Khamenei, the equally mentally imbalanced leader of Iran, he’ll draw parallel conclusions, one of which will be that Qaddafi was foolish to give up his nuclear weapons quest in the 2000s and trust the West, which then seized the first opportunity to impose forcible regime change. Khamenei will likely conclude the Qaddafi would still be in power if he had had nuclear weapons, and although that conclusion would be idiotically wrong—the West would long ago have invaded Libya to stop it from getting the bomb—Khamenei is going to think so, anyway, making a deal between the United States and Iran far more difficult.
So who’s in charge in Libya now? We don’t know. Qaddafi wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that he was under assault by Islamists, though Islamists were probably not the main component of the opposition and the so-called Transitional National Council (TNC). Presumably, the TNC is being ferried by NATO in Tripoli today. As Butch Cassidy once asked: “Who are these guys?” I guess we’ll find out, if they don’t assassinate each other while fighting over power in the meantime. In the end, it doesn’t really matter who controls Libya, except to Libyans.