In August 2009, Vanity Fair dedicated a tongue-in-cheek photo gallery to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, focusing on the dictator’s reliably outlandish sartorial choices. Entitled ‘Fashion Qaddafi-Style’, the piece was as notable for its pithy captions as it was for the selections of its photo editor. “Early Qaddafi,” one of them read, “before he learned the fine art of accessorising with maps of Africa and photos of dead people.”
That Qaddafi bore a striking resemblance to Will Ferrell only added to the general sense of his being a buffoon, which lasted through the Bedouin tent drama of the following month up until his absurd and paranoiac diatribe at the United Nations on September 23. His UN debut was six times longer than it was by rights allowed to be. “He has a vice,” Christopher Hitchens once told me of Hugo Chávez, “which is always very well worth noticing because it’s always a bad sign: he doesn’t know when to sit down.”
An equally bad sign is not knowing when to stand down, either. The attention lavished upon Qaddafi in the early stages of the uprising against him, like that which is being lavished on him again now that he is dead, often had little to do with the extreme and deadly measures he was taking to ensure that he need not relinquish his 41-year stranglehold on his country, and rather more to do with his perceived eccentricities. (His first television appearance after riots began was a 16-second clip of him sitting in a car with an umbrella over his head, denying that he had left Tripoli for Chávez’s Venezuela. The umbrella was too silly not to dominate the headlines.)
By attempting to prevent the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt from being repeated in North Africa’s most repressive state, Qaddafi set about reminding those who had begun to take him for little more than an oddly-dressed curio just how his country earned that dubious reputation in the first place. There’s nothing scarier than a clown with scissors and this year the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya unsheathed a pair for the ages.
The international community’s willingness to downgrade Qaddafi’s megalomaniacal madness to mere personal quirkiness in the wake of his 2003 offer to dismantle Libya’s chemical and nuclear weapons programs looks, in light of the past nine months, naïve at best and self-serving at worst. (To the extent that many foreign policy experts suspected that Qadaffi’s offer was little more than a ruse to get sanctions on his country lifted, it is arguable that the attempts of oil-thirsty western leaders to reach out to him in the intervening years were similarly expedient.)
But this wasn’t the first time we have made this mistake — that of downplaying the criminal as the comical or else confusing the one for the other — and it likely won’t be the last. In his 2003 obituary for Idi Amin, The Daily Telegraph‘s Charles Moore wrote that western politicians and commentators had often harboured a certain “fascination, verging on affection, for the grotesqueness of the individual” which “occluded the singular plight of his nation”. In a 1977 Time article, His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, was referred to as a “big-hearted buffoon”. When Amin rounded up roughly 200 US citizens in 1977 and forbade them from leaving Uganda, following condemnation from Jimmy Carter for the murders of Archbishop Janani Luwum and two of Amin’s Cabinet ministers, one White House advisor was reported as having asked why the administration’s first foreign policy crisis couldn’t have been “a more dignified one”.
There are countless other, more recent examples. Whether singing about how “ronery” he is in Team America: World Police or having a hugely popular Tumblr dedicated to photographs of him “looking at things”, North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-il has become a comic figure almost everywhere but on the Korean peninsula itself, where his warships sink those of his southern neighbour and where those unlucky enough to live north of the 38th parallel are so poor that many of them have taken to eating grass. We may take Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and his root-and-branch dismantling of his country’s democracy, more seriously, but we’re nevertheless happy to make tongue-in-cheek calendars of his photo-op heroics and sell them online as though his stranglehold on the media had at least one comic side-effect.
Hugo Chávez’s comically creepy eccentricities — his tendency to leave a seat free at cabinet meetings should Simón Bolívar’s ghost ever wish to attend, not to mention his exhumation of the independence hero’s remains and his subsequentassertion on national television that he was most likely their reincarnation — don’t get in the way of our acknowledging his record of anti-democratic reforms, attacks on freedom of speech, support for Latin American terrorist organisations like the FARC, and his stockpiling of $4.4 billion worth of Russian weaponry, including tanks, over the past six years. They don’t get in the way of the fact he has presented replicas of Bolívar’s sword to, among others, Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenko, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and, of course, Muammar Qaddafi. But that’s only because the Left’s uncritical celebration of him often gets in the way of them first.
There’s a reason we like the crazy ones best. The easiest to pillory are also the hardest to fear. They are also, however, the easiest to downplay or ignore. They are — to use a neologism coined by George W. Bush, no stranger to being pilloried himself — the easiest to misunderestimate. This is not an attack on satire or parody, which are among the most useful weapons of the powerless. Rather it is a reminder: the most important thing about a clown with scissors is not the clowning but the scissors. Given the records of many of these “big-hearted buffoons” for nuclear proliferation, state sponsorship of terrorism and repression of their own people, perhaps it’s time we realised that, to put it another way, the easiest to pillory are often also the easiest to enable.
Which is why what happened in Libya this year was so worthy of our attention. Unlike those in the West who spent the last eight years laughing at his wardrobe and the more patently ludicrous of his pronouncements, Libyans never found Qaddafi all that difficult to fear and, for the vast majority of his reign, misunderestimated only themselves. That this should have changed so rapidly was monumental enough, though the possible ramifications that change are potentially even more so.
For there are other scissor-wielding clowns at work in the Middle East at present. You may remember Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from his riotous 2007 engagement at Columbia University, in which he denied not only the historical facts of the Holocaust, but also the existence of Iranian homos-xuals. You may remember Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from the somewhat less amusing crackdown two years later on thousands of young people who had taken to the streets of Tehran to protest the results of a fraudulent election that saw Ahmadinejad returned to power. While Khamenei and his president may be increasingly on the outs with one another, it remains true enough that, if the Islamic Republic had a face, it would be that of Tim Curry’s clown in It.
While cracking down on protests at home all year, the Iranian regime has meanwhile been revelling in those taking place elsewhere in the region. (“He’s losing his mind,” Jon Lovitz observes of Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer. “And I’m reaping all the benefits.”) In February, Iran sent two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in over 30 years, celebrating the demise of Hosni Mubarak by giving the Israeli coastguard an ulcer. Protests in countries like Bahrain threatened to tip Saudi-Iranian balance in the Gulf in Iran’s favour.
While the Syrian people’s uprising against Bashar al-Assad hasn’t played into the mullahs hands, you wouldn’t know it from their disingenuous public pronouncements on the matter. (“The people of these nations have legitimate demands,” Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Saleh told reporters in August, “and the governments should answer these demands as soon as possible.” The meeting of pot and kettle was quite something.) In the main, however, what was considered an Arab Spring on the one hand very quickly turned into Springtime for Ahmadinejad: A Gay Romp with Mahmoud and Ali in Persia on the other.
It is for precisely this reason that Libya’s symbolic and strategic importance were, and are, so intimately entwined. As Michael J. Totten observed at the beginning of this year, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were “low-hanging fruit” compared with the leaders of the region’s totalitarian regimes. While it might sound strange to speak of degrees of unscrupulousness, Qaddafi proved — by using attack helicopters and war planes where his mere authoritarian counterparts used tear gas and rent-a-mobs — that it isn’t impossible. Assad has been proving it in his own bloody way ever since. (If I do not include Assad or Bahrain’s Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in the aforementioned category of scissor-wielding clowns, it is not because I condone their behaviour, bur rather because we have never found them very funny. We have preferred to ignore, rather than mistake, their true natures. I believe this will prove just as costly a mistake.)
Qaddafi’s failure to contain the uprising in his country, and the fact that he wasn’t permitted to get away with the mass murder it would have taken for him to do so, sends other totalitarian despots a message. By succeeding to overthrow Qadaffi, the Libyan people have made themselves clear: no regime can be considered safe anywhere, no matter how brutal or repressive its methods, no matter how out of their heads its heads.
With the powerless everywhere running amuck, in other words, the powerful might finally warrant the punch-line.