In February of 2011, Libya was convulsing with revolution against autocrat Muammar Gaddafi. Many Westerners were certain that Gaddafi would fall within days.
He did not. Rather, with the help of African mercenaries and loyalists, Gaddafi retook control of the streets of Tripoli. Rebel offensives in the east petered out, and Gaddafi’s armed forces began advancing towards the rebel capital Benghazi. Then the West intervened, and the rest is history.
It did have not to be this way, in fact. One main – and frequently underestimated – thing that caused Western intervention was Gaddafi’s rhetoric.
Specifically, on February 22 Gaddafi gave a speech to the Libyan people addressing the unrest in his country. This speech included such gems as:
Get out of your homes, to the streets, secure the streets, take the rats, the greasy rats out of the streets…
Now, Gaddafi had frequently given such speeches in the past; this was nothing new to those familiar with him. Libyans used to Gaddafi’s eccentricities were probably not that surprised by the rhetoric. Indeed, most people familiar with Gaddafi generally had tended to ignore his speeches.
Except on February 22nd things were different. This time the whole world was watching Gaddafi. On February 22nd, even the American cable networks (notoriously uninterested in world affairs) interrupted regular programming to hear him speak.
Most people probably expected Gaddafi to offer some concessions. Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak, for instance, dismissed his cabinet during one such speech and promised to address the lack of jobs available for Egypt’s youth. People probably expected Gaddafi to sound like a reasonable person, like Mubarak.
Instead, they heard this:
So tonight, the youth, all the youths, not those rats who’ve taken the pills, all the youths tomorrow form security committees from tonight, they put green with red writing secure the cities, to bring back security to the cities.
When the Western elite heard Gaddafi say things like this (probably the first time many of them heard him speak at all), they were utterly shocked. Eventually they concluded two things. First, Gaddafi was a madman. Second, there would be a massacre if he ever took back the rebelling eastern regions.
Newspapers wrote articles with titles such as “Gaddafi: ‘I will not give up’, ‘we will chase the cockroaches’ .” They published his most inflammatory rhetoric; one Times article quoted him:
“We are coming tonight,” Colonel Qaddafi said. “You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.”
There are hints of the effect the rhetoric had on Western officials. For instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Gaddafi:
a ruthless dictator that has no conscience and will destroy anyone or anything in his way…That is just his nature. There are some creatures that are like that.
This is quite undiplomatic language, and it probably reveals a lot about what Clinton actually thought about Gaddafi. Later on she became a very influential advocate for American intervention to stop Gaddafi (indeed, it may have been Clinton that convinced Obama to intervene). It’s probable that Clinton watched Gaddafi speak on February 22nd, and that her impression of Gaddafi – as a “creature” – was formed in part by hearing his rhetoric.
In this sense Gaddafi made a great strategic mistake when he spoke on February 22nd. For decades Gaddafi had spoke in a similar mad style, and for decades he’d gotten away with it. When he spoke on February 22nd, he was probably addressing a domestic audience and trying to frighten the opposition. But not just the opposition was listening; so was the world.