By ROGER COHEN
Published: April 30, 2011
I descended 55 steps into the labyrinth of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s mind. The glow of cellphones and a feeble flashlight lit a passage into the darkness. A netherworld unfolded — bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, even saunas — linked by tunnels with six-inch-thick metal doors agape at their mouths. No expense had been spared on this lair.
“You see what the rat planned,” said Farage Mohamed, a manager in an oil pipe company, as he led the way to the base of an escape hatch that emerged deep in the gardens of this sprawling former Qaddafi villa in liberated eastern Libya. “It’s like Hitler’s Berlin bunker.”
So Qaddafi always thought this could happen, even 42 years into his rule. He feared someone might slice away the myths — Arab nationalist, African unifier, all-powerful non-president — and leave him, disrobed, a little man in a vast vault with nowhere left to go. In the twisted mind of the despot now derided here as “the man with the big hair,” his own demise was the tousle-coiffed specter that would not go away.
Strange, then, that the United States and Europe never thought this could happen — not to Qaddafi, or Mubarak, or Ben Ali, or any of the other murderous plunderers, some now gone, others slaughtering their own people, here in Libya, or in Syria, or Yemen. Policy was based on the mistaken belief that these leaders would last forever.
They were paranoid about their fates. We were convinced of their permanence.
Of course it was not just a conviction about their inevitability that drove U.S. policy toward these dictators. It was a cynical decision to place counterterrorism and security at the top of the agenda and human rights — in this case Arab rights — at the bottom. It was about Big Oil interests. And, to some degree, it was about the perception of what served the security of America’s closest regional ally, Israel.
Oh, sure, an Egyptian human rights activist might get American support, or a worthy nongovernmental organization, but when they were suppressed a resounding silence emanated from Washington.
Arab reform was an oxymoron, as was Arab democratization. They were dwarfed by the supposed counterterrorist credentials of these despots, their professed loathing for Al Qaeda or Hamas or any brand of radical Islamist, and their readiness to kill or torture and pass on intelligence. Qaddafi never stopped haranguing U.S. diplomats about his hatred for Al Qaeda and about American support for Al Qaeda’s first home, Saudi Arabia.
Yet he, like the other dictators, was also busy creating the problem in order to portray himself as the solution to it.
Passports got into the hands of the Libyans who made their way from the eastern town of Darnah to swell the ranks of Qaeda offshoots in Iraq. Repression fed extremism. Plundering fed desperation.
Hosni Mubarak used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a manipulative tool in his repressive arsenal. He was the worst “friend” the Palestinians ever had, sowing division as he preached unity. Like Qaddafi and Ben Ali, he called himself a bulwark against extremism even as his strangled society fostered it.
So, having been in Tunisia and Egypt and now Libya during this Arab Spring, I say, Shine a light — into Qaddafi’s bunkers and everywhere. Let people out of their dark houses. Allow them to participate in the making of their societies.
Take the disgruntled and give them opportunities. That’s a different counterterrorism policy that may actually work over time. The evolving Middle East, where despotic Islamism is well past its ideological zenith, demands it.
Before visiting Qaddafi’s villa, where kids play soccer on the former tennis court, I went to the Bayda home of Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the mild leader of the Transitional National Council in eastern Libya. “The West’s mistake was to support Qaddafi, the first terrorist,” he said, citing the downed Pan Am 103 and UTA 772 flights, with a combined total of 440 people killed.
He called for weapons, especially in the embattled west of the country, the intensification of NATO airstrikes, and the ousting of a man “who is challenging the whole world.”
There’s a debt to repay to the Libyan people; a strong strategic interest in a Tunis-Tripoli-Cairo democratic example; and, with civilians dying daily in Misurata, a powerful U.N.-backed legal case for bombing that forces the issue: Qaddafi’s departure. Behind the swagger lurks the coward who built that bunker.
It’s a few miles from the Qaddafi villa to the breathtaking ruins at Cyrene, founded in the seventh century B.C. and once known as the “Athens of Africa.” I wandered, almost alone, among the Greek and Roman temples and gazed out to the Mediterranean. Libya, brutalized, is reclaiming something deep, its history and culture.
Under the pines I found a few youths with a guitar, two of whom had lost brothers in this war. With a haunting intensity they sang: “We’re gonna chase him out of here because we have no fears. My Libya, your Libya, it’s our Libya. ...”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 1, 2011, on page WK11 of the New York edition with the headline: My Libya, Your Libya, Our Libya.
Thanks for Mr. Cohen for saying the truth and nothing but the truth. We as good people keep to those stand with us in the hard time their dues and respect. No doubt some of the Jews are standing strong with our revolutions. We would like very much to make with them permanent peace and not strategic one. Honesty, transparency and the right of all people to have democracy and better lives should be our aim all. God of the Bible and Quran made it clear he is a just and very strong God and he hates oppression. Who will take the side of God will prevail even if takes him years of patience and suffering.