Moammar Gadhafi was killed Thursday in his hometown of Sirte, Libya. CNN's Fareed Zakaria, who interviewed Gadhafi in 2009, discusses the man, the cult and the future of Libya in the Q&A below.
Q: When you heard Gadhafi was dead, what went through your mind?
Fareed Zakaria: I was not surprised. I never thought Moammar Gadhafi would give up because he was not a bureaucrat like Hosni Mubarak. He had not been standing in line in the regime and it became his turn to be the dictator. He was a revolutionary. He was a guy who had launched a colonel’s coup. He had always been a fighter – romantic, mad, crazy – so I always suspected he would go down fighting.
I also thought there was much less to his position than people made out. He did not actually have lots of tribes loyal to him. He had paid off a bunch of them. But once the money starts drying up, that kind of loyalty disappears pretty quickly.
I also thought it was a sad statement about the way in which he and his sons plundered the country – wrecked it economically – and were unable to provide some kind of transition to a decent next stage.
Q: If, in fact, both of Gadhafi's sons are dead in addition to the father, this represents the complete end of any hope that any Gadhafi ever might reemerge and take charge.
Zakaria: I think that’s right though there was very little hope in any event. I interviewed Gadhafi when he was in New York, and at that time I had negotiated with Mutassim, the guy we've seen now dead, and he struck me as a playboy; he struck me as the rich kid. He had just come back from Las Vegas in a private plane with girls and God knows what else. These were not people who could really have succeeded Gadhafi. Gadhafi had become more crazy than usual and his sons were running things, but at the end of the day Gadhafi was the center of that regime. The sons were spoiled brats who I couldn't ever see being able to succeed. Mutassim came across as extremely immature - more a young mafia gangster than a leader in waiting.
Saif Gadhafi was a more cerebral character. He was smart. He often spoke very movingly about trying to liberalize Libya. But there was another side to him. He was a great playboy and spent all his time in Monte Carlo and the casinos of Europe. Neither of these people had the capacity or will to be real nation builders. In the context of being the son of Moammar Gadhafi, Saif was impressive. Not on his own. I think that what you'll see is that the coterie around Gadhafi will crumble entirely. This was a one-man regime; it was a one-man cult and now that man is gone.
Q: It is unclear whether Moammar Gadhafi’s son, the person who was expected to be his heir apparent, Saif al-Islam is alive or dead. If he is alive, how does that change the arithmetic in Libya about who could be leading there?
Zakaria: I don’t think it changes the actual arithmetic of the ground. Saif was a creature of Moammar Gadhafi. This was a one-man regime - a one-man cult. Saif did not have the background or the support in the country – the support among the armed forces or intelligence services – to have ever run Libya, let alone in the circumstance it is in now.
But if he is still alive, it does add an air of uncertainty to the fate of Libya. One of the things that has been very difficult in Libya is the sense of uncertainty – the sense that they haven’t actually finished the revolution, that there was still a great deal of uncertainty. That uncertainty has made Libya harder for business in terms of oil and other things as well.
Q: What do we really know about the new leaders? We have all seen the report from Amnesty International that the transitional government has tortured prisoners. There is a history of tribal splits. There are reports that Al Qaeda affiliates are is in the leadership in Libya. What do you know for sure about the new leaders?
Zakaria: What we know for sure is that they don’t control much of Libya. A lot of reports are really about groups of militias or soldiers that have done bad things. It’s not clear they were directed centrally by the National Transitional Council. Many of the people on the Council are educated, pro-Western people – some of them were within the Gadhafi regime but left because they wanted a better future for Libya. Many of them are deeply frustrated that they have very little control.
Just a day before the news of Gadhafi's death, Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the Interim Government in Libya, said to Time Magazine that he was going to resign. He said he was going to resign because there was a sense of chaos and lawlessness in Libya and that he just didn’t have the tools - a big army - to stabilize the country and then govern it. I think what you’re seeing is a kind of free-for-all. Some of the groups on the ground are doing very nasty stuff.
Q: Given that, is America able to disengage at this point? NATO is saying its mission is done. Is America’s mission not done?
The Obama Administration has been very disciplined about not getting over-involved in Libya. They’ve drawn a clear line to say, “We don’t own Libya.” Colin Powell said before the Iraq War, “If you break it you buy it.” Well, we didn’t break it. So it’s possible for the Obama Administration to continue the way it has with some support and engagement - but nothing that requires major numbers of American troops on the ground or anything like that. The Obama Administration will be able to stay somewhat at arms length. That of course assumes that Libya doesn’t descend into complete chaos, which at this point does not seem likely.
Q: What does this mean for Syria and Bashar al-Assad? Does this change the balance of power or likely outcome there?
It’s not good news for President Assad because it suggests that in the end of the day these kinds of regimes are vulnerable, fragile and will eventually go. But that could take a long time. The situation in Syria is quite different from Libya. You don’t have the geographic split in Libya between East and West. You don’t have rebels or opposition taking one part of the country and raising an army and being supplied from that place. You also have a great reluctance of the West to get involved militarily, largely because of the sense that it would be very nasty. You wouldn’t have local forces on the grounds you could assist.
So I think the obituaries for Assad are premature. I think he will probably be able to survive this in the short run. In the long run, will he be able to? Probably not. He runs a brutally repressive regime and has a very narrow base of support. The Allawites are a 10% minority within Syria. But so far within Syria you have not seen the kind of geography or situation that allows the opposition to mobilize that would create some kind of fighting force or center of opposition from which you could launch some kind of regime-toppling event.