Judging from the fervor of their celebrations, the Libyan people are acutely aware that they will benefit from the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. But Libya is hardly the only country that has reason to rejoice.
As committed as the dictator was to destroying his own country, he posed an equal—perhaps even greater—danger to developing countries in other parts of the world. From the time he assumed power, Qaddafi leveraged Libya’s oil money, and his own willingness to have his country become a pariah state, to support insurgencies from East Asia, to South America, to southern Africa. With any luck, a number of long-running civil wars will disappear from the world stage together with Qaddafi himself.
Qaddafi always made it clear that he wouldn’t follow the informal rulebook established by other Arab and African leaders, according to which they never meddled in other countries’ affairs: Indeed, his political vision always extended beyond his own borders.
One of his pet projects, in fact, was the World Revolutionary Center, which he established near the city of Benghazi. Stephen Ellis referred to the institution as the “Harvard and Yale of a whole generation of African revolutionaries.” While many of his graduates shared an anti-Western ideology—which appealed to the Libyan dictator’s own self-image as one of the few statesmen willing to stand up to would-be imperialists—sometimes the rebels on his bankroll had no discernable ideology at all. Qaddafi’s ideological inclinations were often outweighed by his appetite for power, his desire to be seen as a dominant powerbroker in Africa, his fantasies of revenge against America, or simply his love of mischief.
Very occasionally, Qaddafi backed insurgents, like the African National Congress during South Africa’s apartheid years, who were fighting for laudable goals. But far more often than not, Qaddafi’s beneficiaries were as antidemocratic and brutal as he was: Among them were future dictators and thugs such as Chad’s Idriss Deby, Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, and Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Taylor, the Liberian warlord now facing charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Court, led one of the grisliest wars in modern history, overseeing the deployment of child soldiers, and the regular use of amputations, rapes, and sexual slavery. Sankoh also played a major role in that war, though he later died in custody. Meanwhile, Compaore, who has ruled with an iron-fist for nearly twenty-five years in Burkina Faso, regularly rigs his elections to maintain power, most recently last year.
Libya thus became the hub of a global network of insurgents and warlords: Qaddafi’s trainees used the ties they established during their time in Libya to further support each other and bolster their staying-power. Compaore, for instance, sent troops to aid the West African insurgents: He also was the one who first introduced Taylor to Qaddafi—love at first sight for the two despots, but a match made in hell for the people of Liberia.
At the height of Qaddafi’s power in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, as civil wars bloomed in the wake of the Cold War and the price of oil kept the Libyan economy flush, Qaddafi’s reach extended far beyond Africa. Qaddafi’s aid—in the form of arms, money, and training—to Muslim separatists in the southern Phillipines long bolstered their bloody insurgency against Catholic-dominated Manila. Despite Qaddafi’s relatively secular leanings, Libya is said to have been channeling funds to the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist-group-cum-kidnapping-gang in the southern Philippines with ties to Al Qaeda.
And despite his much-hyped rapprochement with the West in the early 2000s, during which he publicly gave up his weapons of mass destruction program and welcoming leading officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tripoli, Qaddafi never entirely stopped supporting insurgencies and dictators. He apparently always continued his backing for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a drug-running terrorist organization that has helped make parts of Colombia ungovernable.(As longtime Qaddafi-watcher Douglas Farah has noted, one captured FARC hard drive contained a letter from the group requesting $100 million from the Libyan leader.) And his assistance to Robert Mugabe went unabated, even long after the Zimbabwean dictator lost all international credibility by openly stealing national elections.
The constancy of this support has turned out to be mutual. Even as Qaddafi’s rule has crumbled in recent months, exposing his lack of support among average Libyans, the groups he funded abroad have stood by him. Rebels in the southern Philippines have publicly protested the NATO attacks on Qaddafi’s installations. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has backed the FARC alongside Qaddafi, has denounced the international intervention in Libya, saying that international powers were “kicking, spitting ... on the most basic elements of international law.” Even many African National Congress leaders still have a soft spot for Gadhafi, since he stood by the ANC during the apartheid era—Nelson Mandela and current South African president Jacob Zuma have both called Qaddafi a “brother leader.”
But with Qaddafi gone, the insurgencies he backed will either have to find new patrons, or face the prospect of dying out. Some are already on their last legs. The southern Philippines’ insurgent groups are now engaged in serious peace talks with the government (talks that Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam had originally attempted to broker). In Burkina Faso, Compaore’s rule is increasingly threatened by army defections and street protestors attempting to convert the Arab spring into an African fall. Unable to rely upon assistance and rhetorical support from Libya, Compaore seems likely to face the same fate as Qaddafi himself. Robert Mugabe, who seems to be gearing up at nearly 90 years of age for another national election, will also be weakened by not being able to rely upon Qaddafi: African reformers, such as Botswana’s democratic government, will undoubtedly be emboldened in renewing their calls for Mugabe to go.
The rebels who have now taken power in Tripoli would be wise to acknowledge the destabilizing role that Qaddafi had Libya play on the international stage over the past four decades. That is not to say that they are responsible for the mayhem caused by the former regime. But by recognizing their political inheritance, and perhaps setting aside some funds for victims of Qaddafi’s international terror, they will be eschewing Qaddafi’s own attitude of radical fervor. Marking such an end to the country’s era of perpetual revolution would be the most promising development of all for Libya.
Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.