In This Review

A History of Modern Libya
A History of Modern Libya
By Dirk Vandewalle
Cambridge University Press, 2006, 274 pp

The restoration of full diplomatic relations between Libya and the United States, announced this May, offers an opportune time to consider in larger historical perspective the longtime rogue state led by the mercurial Muammar al-Qaddafi, as Vandewalle's book does. After independence in 1951, with virtually no effective political institutions surviving from the Ottoman or Italian periods, the shaky Sanusi monarchy ruled over a tiny, painfully poor population. Later came the mixed blessing of an abrupt move from rags to riches with the discovery of oil. Qaddafi's populist revolution in 1969 thus had little to build on but possessed the wherewithal to experiment. His Libya was to be not a state but a jamahiriyya, a self-governing people unburdened by bureaucracies. The result was an autocracy that failed at both economic planning and institution building. At the same time, Qaddafi decided to export his revolution, and Libya ended up in conflicts with its Arab and African neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe. But in recent years, Libya has seemed to have sensed the unbearable disconnect between aspirations and reality. It has abandoned its effort to produce weapons of mass destruction, taken responsibility and provided payment for horrendous terrorist acts (such as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103), and worked its way out of sanctions and back into the international community. Vandewalle's last few pages offer a fine appreciation of this recent development plus informed speculation about Libya's future prospects.