I have never been a fan of “liberal interventionism,” but a month in Tripoli made me think again. What is needed now are UN boots on the groundby Tom Streithorst / April 13, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
A French helicopter lands on an American navy ship as part of the ongoing military operations in Libya
I have never been a fan of “liberal interventionism.” As a cameraman, I’ve seen it go wrong too many times in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But a month in Tripoli changed my mind. I’m now convinced that what Libya needs—and needed right from the start—is the United Nations or the Arab League to put boots on the ground and finish the job.
Visiting Libya was a bit like taking a vacation with a dysfunctional family, where brother, sister and mum all conspire to hide the obvious: Dad is a creepy tyrant, not the all-knowing philosopher he pretends to be. Most dictators are happy to be feared and obeyed; Gaddafi needs to be adored. And his people, like beaten children grovelling before dad, comply. Grown men feel obliged to tell you they would “die for him.” Women repeatedly screech, “I love Gaddafi.” The first segment (and the second, and the third and sometimes the fourth) on the evening news report always featured a rally somewhere in Libya as citizens extravagantly proclaim their love, admiration, and devotion for the Brother Leader.
Every once in a while the illusion dissolved. One man whispered, “Don’t believe their lies”; another, making sure no one could hear, told me “We all hate him.” A boy who had been chanting regime slogans looked me straight in the eye and mouthed the word: “Freedom.” I saw regime thugs beating a man standing in silent protest; a taxi driver who took me to an opposition neighbourhood was imprisoned for weeks; I’ve had an AK-47 shoved in my side and colleagues have told me they have been pistol whipped and threatened with death.
Yet Gaddafi is not mad. No one singlehandedly rules a nation for 41years without preternatural shrewdness. Meeting him behind three sets of walls at his Tripoli fortress the Bab al Azizia, I was impressed with his charisma, his self-confidenc…