WASHINGTON – It came as no surprise that dictator Moammar Gadhafi, holding an umbrella, vowed to die “a martyr” in his own country during a rambling, semi-coherent speech to the Libyan people last week.
Eccentricity has always been second nature to the “King of Kings.”
To the world, he’s known for a Gilbert and Sullivan array of costumes: dazzling, embroidered kufis – traditional African hats – bomber jackets or shirts with a map of Africa on them.
Then there’s his flamboyant and iconoclastic disregard for protocol and rules, like wanting to pitch a Bedouin tent in Central Park during the 2009 United Nations General Assembly opening. The media routinely have reported on the entourage of female bodyguards who follow him everywhere.
Now the one-time army captain who seized power in a 1969 coup is watching his grip over Libya slip away as an insurrection, fueled by wholesale slaughters of protesters, leaves him and his hard-core loyalists all but cornered in their stronghold of Tripoli.
When and how his end will come appears to be just a matter of time.
Gadhafi, at his best odd and difficult to understand, has always fostered a sense of self-importance as he presided over one of the Middle East’s most despotic regimes.
But lurking within that arrogance and bizarre self-aggrandizement is a desert fox, said Clement Henry, a retired professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“He has had occasional mental episodes, but he’s also a very shrewd guy,” Henry said, adding: “I think Gadhafi today seems completely removed from reality.”
President Ronald Reagan called him the “mad dog of the Middle East” in the 1980s.
“People say he’s a madman,” Henry said. “But actually I don’t think it’s madness in any conventional sense. The guy is really quite astute.
“At this point, he is removed from reality just as Hosni Mubarak was. The guy is ready to really do a scorched-earth policy. Remember, Ben Ali and Mubarak also sent their goons in,” Henry said, referring to the toppled leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, respectively.
U.S. diplomats found Gadhafi to be both wily and eccentric, according to State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks. The Libyan relies heavily on a Ukrainian nurse named Galyna, “who has been described as a ‘voluptuous blonde,’ ” according to one cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
They also describe him as a hypochondriac, who insists on having all his medical procedures videotaped and then discussing them with his doctors, and as someone who has a fear of both flying over water and the upper floors of buildings.
“While it is tempting to dismiss his many eccentricities as signs of instability, Gadhafi is a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for 40 years through a skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods,” one cable concluded.
Gadhafi has ruthlessly tried to crush the current uprising, strafing rebels with fighter jets and deploying African mercenaries. The final death toll may be in the thousands. Many Libyans fear that he’s preparing a last-ditch stand in Tripoli rather than surrender if the insurrection prevails.
As a leader, he is hard to describe, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center based in Doha, Qatar.
“He’s certainly one of the oddest world leaders in recent memory. It’s hard to find someone who is remotely similar to him in style and demeanor,” Hamid said, adding that Gadhafi is capable of massacring his own people.
“In that sense he is a unique leader on the world stage,” Hamid said. “He is odd because he is ideologically hard to pin down. He’s someone who has dabbled in nationalism, socialism – everything except democracy.”
Gadhafi is a member of the Gadhadhfa, an Arabized Berber tribe, born near Sirte, once a hard-scrabble town in north-central Libya that he has lavished with money and development funded by oil income.
At age 27, he led other young army officers of rural backgrounds in the bloodless overthrow of King Idris, inspired by the heady brew of pan-Arab nationalism and socialism espoused by then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Gadhafi seemed to emulate Nasser, an officer who also had seized power in a coup. Like Nasser, Gadhafi dubbed his takeover a revolution, had himself given Nasser’s rank of colonel, and advocated the creation of an Arab federation of Egypt, Syria and Libya.
“He was young, nationalistic and imperialistic – charismatic even, perhaps. So he seemed that he would adopt that approach and style, but that didn’t last very long,” Hamid said.
Gadhafi pursued nationalistic policies designed to protect “national independence.” He pushed the U.S. out of its largest airbase in the region, expelled Italian expatriates and confiscated their properties, and nationalized some Western oil operations.
In the early 1970s, Gadhafi improved relations with the Soviet Union and began sponsoring separatist, Marxist, anti-imperialist and anti-Israel terrorist groups, earning the enmity of the U.S. and other powers.
In 1977, he presided over an overhaul of Libya’s political system, creating what he claimed was decentralized popular rule through grass-roots committees and changing the country’s name to the Great Socialist Popular Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
In fact, experts said, the overhaul further concentrated power in the hands of Gadhafi, who presided over a police state in which the creation of independent political parties was punishable by death and where detention without charge, torture and executions were common.
In 1986, after Libya was suspected of involvement in the bombing of a German disco where U.S. soldiers were killed, Reagan dispatched U.S. jets to attack Gadhafi’s residence in Tripoli. Gadhafi’s adopted daughter – he has seven sons – was killed.
There’s always been a pan-Arab nationalist side of Gadhafi, which turned into dabbling with pan-Africanism.
“He never had a strong ideological commitment to anything except his own desire to rule,” Hamid said.
In the 1970s, Gadhafi published his philosophical manifesto – akin to other famous revolutionaries’ books – called “The Green Book.”
The most notorious incident of the 68-year-old leader’s rule was the 1988 bombing by Libya that killed 270 people aboard a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. In response, the United Nations slapped Libya with sanctions that remained in place until 2003, when Gadhafi owned up to his country’s involvement in the attack and compensated the victims’ families.
Just last week, after defecting to the opposition, former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil alleged that Gadhafi was directly involved in the bombing.
Gadhafi also agreed in 2003 to relinquish his covert weapons of mass destruction programs, including a nuclear weapons development program, breaking the international isolation in which he had confined his country.
Gadhafi’s fate may come down to two scenarios: death or exile, possibly to Venezuela, whose ruler, President Hugo Chavez, is one of the Libyan leader’s few sympathizers.
“One possibility is to convince him to live the rest of the days in Venezuela,” Hamid said. “But he’s made it clear he wants to fight to the last drop of blood. I think we can picture Gadhafi doing just that.”