The End of Gadhafi?

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Benjamin Barberpolitical theorist and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the policy center Demos, discusses reports that former Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi died of injuries sustained during his capture this morning in Sirte.

This morning brought big news from Libya. Disgraced former leader Muammar Gadhafi is reported to have been killed. The National Transitional Council, Libya’s rebel umbrella group, reported earlier that Gadhafi was captured and wounded, with those reports soon changing to say that he had died, but independent sources have yet to confirm the news.

Libya’s information minister has affirmed the story, saying that the capture happened when revolutionary forces attacked the town, though previous reports had blamed it on an airstrike—possibly a NATO airstrike—hit a fleeing convoy.

Agance France-Presse has been circulating a cell phone photo of a wounded man said to be Gadhafi, and now Al-Jazeera has released photos of what is claimed to be the ex-Libyan leader’s body.

There are good reasons to be cautious about accepting the news. The Transitional Council had claimed during the taking of Tripoli to have captured some of Gadhafi’s family, but those reports were proved false. The incident damaged the Council’s credibility. Barber believes, however, the likelihood that Gadhafi has been captured or killed to be high at this point, despite the mixed nature of the reports today. 

I suspect that such reports would not be floating around unless they were grounded in the fundamental truth that he’s either been wounded or captured and/or killed.  It would be too much of a disgrace to the National Transitional Council to otherwise float that information. So I think there’s a fair amount of certitude that this does spell the end of Gadhafi’s rule.

The nature of the attack on the former leader is also still unknown. Whether Gadhafi was killed by an airstrike or by revolutionary insurgency troops on the ground could prove to be hugely consequential.

If he was killed by a NATO strike, it means in effect that foreigners, colonialists and so forth, came and took out a leader from the air, and that will leave behind a legacy that will be more difficult for the Transitional Council to deal with. So I hope very much that the story will turn out to be the victory of the forces that occupied and took Sirte… That would be a much better outcome for the Libyan insurgency.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had recently visited Libya, leaving just a day before the news broke. During her visit she addressed the Libyan people, stressing that after Gadhafi’s downfall, the focus must be on the future. Barber said those remarks really captured the central question for Libya’s future.

The vital question is whether with Gadhafi gone—whether he is dead or captured—the disparate elements that have constituted this insurgency over the last six or eight months, can hold together, to now do the positive tasks of creating a new Libya in the face of all the divisions.

Libya faces tribal divisions, regional divisions, religious and secular divisions. As in Egypt, the task of transitioning from a force fighting oppression into a force of coherent government may prove to be the most difficult stage of the revolution.

In a way it’s easy when there’s a vile dictator that is your enemy, that defines your revolution. But when the revolution succeeds in decapitating the regime… the question will be what do the Libyans organize around?

Barber cautioned that the leaders of the revolution may or may not be the leaders of Libya that the United States would desire.

The leader of the militia that was key in taking Tripoli was a guy named Belhadj, and Belhadj was an Al Qaida operative … That guy has said several times that he doesn’t believe that the secular leaders…  are viable, are legitimate, and that they should step down.

In addition the militias have mostly not turned in their weapons, and ground-to-air missiles have been traced from there to Egypt and possibly to Palestine. Barber thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg. “A lot of problems are ahead."

It’s unclear what resources the United States can bring to bear on the task or rebuilding a governing body ad infrastructure in the country, and whether the US even has the political will to continue to engage now that the focus of Congress has shifted away from foreign policy. Barber said it might be better that this work be Libya’s alone.

Democracy has to be built from the inside… Resources are not the question, the question is human capital, civic capital, d they have the kind of civic institutions, the kinds of education, the kinds of nongovernmental organizations, the kind of approach to a national civic identity that will allow them to foster democracy?

Democracy, he said, comes from the bottom up, with long-standing traditions of civic participation on the local level.

In recent years the western powers, including the United States,  have taken the view that democracy comes top-down. Write a constitution, have some elections, have some western-style political parties, and you’ve got democracy. And that’s been proven over and over again… not to be the case.

He said the Libyan insurgency will have to coalesce about a national identity and then allow time for the slow building of bottom-up democracy. No foreign country, he said, particularly not the United States, is in a position to interfere.

The question is now, can Libya make good on the promise of the insurgency?