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Niccolò Machiavelli counsels Muammar Gadhafi

March 26, 2011

Muammar Gadhafi, the leader of Libya, finds himself in a tough predicament, as his own people are rising up against him, demanding that he relinquish power, his most trusted advisors are defecting, and a rebel army is at the gates.  There is no doubt that, with all this corruption, he must be thinking, “Where did I go wrong, and what can I do now?”  If he could conjure up Niccolo Machiavelli, the most cunning and pragmatic of advisors, he would most likely get mixed reviews.

Gadhafi originally came into power in 1968.  He soon renounced official titles and instead announced that he was just one of the people, a “guide” for the stateless-state of Libya run by the citizens.  However, in reality, he quickly became a dictator who controlled every aspect of life.  Machiavelli may have applauded Gadhafi’s early career for his ruthlessness, fundamental willingness to set aside morality, and deception.  Moreover, Gadhafi attempted to establish a Pan-Arab union, the sort of grand initiative that, according to Machiavelli, “the people admire and respect…nothing could strengthen a ruler’s reputation more.”  Although this failed, he was still held in high regard by the people in the beginning.

However, his popularity began to rapidly fade as he continued to employ increasingly harsh and brutal treatment to consolidate his power and establish absolute control over his people.  While this approach may seem to be consistent with Machiavelli’s infamous admonition that “the ends justify the means”, the continuation of these policies after the ruler established a stable state runs counter to his belief that these actions can only be justified if the goals are worthwhile.

After the coup

Therefore, the key question to ask is: what were Gadhafi’s motivation and goals?  The young, charismatic, and probably well-meaning officer depicted in the photo on the right, gradually gave way to brutal, oppressive policies of the corrupt, deluded dictator in the photo below, whose primary motivation seems to be holding onto power at any cost.  He has embraced Machiavelli’s dictum that “if you cannot be loved and feared, then it is better to be feared.” 

However, Machiavelli also makes it clear that “a wise ruler will seek to ensure that his citizens, no matter what the circumstances, have an interest in preserving both him and his authority…”. 

Gadhafi fails to meet these criteria as he is becoming intensely unpopular.

40 years later

At this point, Machiavelli and Gadhafi have clearly parted ways.In response to the demands of his ouster, Gadhafi has stubbornly refused to budge an inch.  His army is bombing and slaughtering the people. 

 Machiavelli would be horrified at these tactics since he believes that a ruler’s sole motivation must be the good of the people and that he can only remain an effective leader if he keeps the support of the populace.  He appears to be becoming increasingly disconnected from reality as evidenced by his March 2011 speech and a more upbeat parody of it.  The situation in Libya is devolving into a full-blown civil war.  The fight goes back and forth, and although Gadhafi now appears to have the upper hand because of its superior fire power, countrary to Machiavelli’s sound advice, he has no friends or allies outside of Libya and, any that he had, he has probably lost as a result of his horrifying response to the protest.  The UN recently (18Mar11) voted to establish a no fly zone over Libya and take “any other necessary measures” to prevent the slaughter of the people.  The decision is likely to tip the balance against Gadhafi.  The air strikes began last week (19Mar11) and Gadhafi remains defiant.  If his current brutal strategy fails, the hatred of his people is such that he must flee the country quickly (if he can find any place to go), as he is at risk of suffering the same fate as of Machiavelli’s countryman, Mussolini, who was viciously killed and hung upside down in public, as punishment for the maltreatment of his people.



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