The Ego Advantage
By DAVID BROOKS
There’s something I’ve always wondered about Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi: How does a guy who seems to be only marginally attached to reality manage to stay in power for 42 years?
He gives rambling incoherent speeches at places like the United Nations. His head is stuffed with oddball conspiracy theories and strange obsessions, like calling for the elimination of Switzerland or blaming the J.F.K. assassination on Israeli intelligence. He shows up in foreign countries in odd dress, with odd make-up and hair-gel preferences, once having pinned a photograph to his chest.
He has an all-female bodyguard contingent. In 2008, he announced that as part of a government shake-up, he was going to abolish all government ministries except Defense, Internal Security and a few others.
These are not the actions of a cold, calculating Machiavellian. Yet Qaddafi can’t just be dismissed as a comic loon. He’s maintained dominance in a ruthless part of the world, and he may outlast the current shambolic attempts to unseat him.
It seems that there is something advantageous in the megalomania that is his defining lifelong trait. He was kicked out of school for trying to organize a student strike. He began plotting a coup to take over the country while in college. He has repeatedly compared himself to Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad. He calls the Green Book, his book of teachings, “the new gospel.”
That book, which Libyans are compelled to read (he canceled student summer vacation at one point and replaced it with indoctrination sessions), is filled with oddball notions and banal assertions. It consists of three parts, “The Solution to Democratic Problems,” “The Solution to Economic Problems” and a section offering solutions to social problems.
Qaddafi apparently wrote the book with the conviction that he had discovered the answers to all human problems, which he calls the Third Universal Theory. In a characteristically absolutist passage, he writes, “True Democracy has but one method and one theory.”
Along the way he offers banal observations as if nobody had ever thought of them before. He reveals that women menstruate and men do not. He unveils doctrines that have nothing to do with how he actually behaves: “Mandatory education is a coercive education that suppresses freedom. To impose specific teaching materials is a dictatorial act.”
He seems to be one of those people who believes he possesses absolute truth, who wants to impose his thoughts on everybody else and exercise total dominance over others like some World Historical superman.
That’s how he has run his country. According to the Freedom of the Press Index, it is the most censored country in the Middle East and North Africa, which is saying something. Experts estimate that as much as 10 percent or 20 percent of the population is made up of state security informants. To eliminate outside influence, Qaddafi at one point removed foreign languages from schools and removed the Latin lettering street signs. Early on, he expelled the Italian community, forcing its members to exhume the bodies of Italians from Libyan graveyards to take home. He broadcast the exhumation live on state TV. Street posters say things like: “Obey Those in Authority.”
Over the decades, he has tried to remake the world in his own grandiose image. He tried to create a larger empire by merging Libya and Sudan. He tried to create a Federation of Arab Republics with Egypt and Syria. He tried to create an Arab Legion. He has named himself King of Kings, Imam of All Muslims and, in 2009, sought to create a United States of Africa. He has created dictatorship academies and has trained some of the world’s most brutal autocrats, and, of course, he has supported terrorist movements in Australia, Ireland, Germany and beyond.
Yet this very megalomania seems to be both the secret to his longevity and to his unhinged nature. The paradoxical fact is that if you want to stay in office as a dictator, it is better to be a narcissistic totalitarian than a run-of-the-mill autocrat. Megalomianiacs like Qaddafi seek to control every neuron in their peoples’ heads and to control every aspect of life. They destroy all outside authority and civil society. They personalize every institution so that things like the army exist to serve their holy selves, rather than the nation at large.
They are untroubled by doubt or concern for the good opinion of others since they already possess absolute truth. They are motivated to fulfill their World Historical Mission and have no interest in retiring peacefully to some villa.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was right years ago to make the distinction between authoritarian dictatorships and totalitarian ones. The totalitarian ones are both sicker and harder to dislodge. Qaddafi’s unhinged narcissistic oddness seems to be the key to his longevity. So remember: If you’re going to be a tyrant, be a wacko. It’s safer.