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The Dartmouth
June 13, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Gov. prof. receives media attention

Whether Libyan ruler Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi will be removed from power is no longer a question, but experts are still speculating as to when the government will be overturned, and how many people will be killed in the process, government professor Dirk Vandewalle said. This past month, Vandewalle a leading expert on Libya's history has received significant international attention for his commentary on the current crisis in Libya in media outlets including The New York Times, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal.

Vandewalle is the author of the book "A History of Modern Libya," and "was among the few Western scholars" to travel to Libya at the time of Qaddafi's rise to power in 1969, according to the Cambridge University Press. Academics and experts play an especially important advising role during times of political unrest or transition, according to Vandewalle.

"We live in a country of sound bites, where people are interviewed and commercial news outlets will take out five seconds that are totally meaningless," he said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "We have the duty to point out the larger historical context in which things are happening. If you understand that context, there is a much greater chance that you can actually address the issue."

The interest from both the public and Washington policy makers for advice from experts like himself has been "enormous and sometimes overwhelming," Vandewalle said.

The United States government is reaching out to people who are familiar with the region and its history, according to Vandewalle. Vandewalle said that one morning he woke up to 172 e-mails in his inbox, and he expects the outreach to increase over the next few months.

Vandewalle's knowledge of the past and present situation in Libya is highly respected in the academic community, according to Paul Sullivan, adjunct professor of security studies and science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University.

"I think he's a good scholar, and his expertise on Libya is helpful for everyone trying to learn more about the situation," Sullivan said. "There are very few academics who are as knowledgeable about Libya as [Vandewalle]."

Professors at the College are similarly excited about the impact of Vandewalle's work on the ongoing conflict in Libya, according to government professor Brian Greenhill.

"It's exciting to know that [Vandewalle] is considered one of the leading scholars on Libya, and to see that his expertise is being called upon by so many different media outlets," Greenhill said. "For me, as a new member of the department, it's wonderful to know that we have so many high-profile scholars on the faculty."

Vandewalle served as the faculty director for the Asian and Middle Eastern studies department's Foreign Study Program in Fez, Morocco, in Spring of 2009 and 2010.

Students who participated in the program found him both fascinating and "surprisingly down to earth," according to Christopher Randall '12 who participated in the FSP last spring.

"During the trip, it got out that he was maybe the leading expert on Qaddafi and Libya in the entire world," Randall said. "It really took me by surprise that he was so approachable and such a normal guy."

Randall said he appreciated seeing the information learned in the classroom being "projected through your professor" onto the larger international stage.

"It's really cool to see him on PBS and involved in the crisis in all these different ways," he said. "It's great to be able to say that I hung out in Fez with that guy."

Libya will face several problems as it transitions from Qaddafi's 40 year regime, Vandewalle said.The "power vacuum" Qaddafi leaves in his wake, as well as the competing economic interests in a country rich with oil, will pose major issues in upcoming years, according to Vandewalle.

"The country will need to for the first time construct itself as a modern state and develop all the kinds of institutions that provide checks and balances between the state and groups in society," he said. "This will be a very difficult thing to do. So many people may try to cash in on the money from oil without contributing to a rebuilding of Libya."

The United States, as the dominant power in the region, must play a key role in strengthening post-Qaddafi Libya in the political and economic spheres, according to Vandewalle.

"We have a really unique democratic tradition, and we really need to focus on how to create a more open and aware society," he said. "We can provide great advice, especially in coordination with multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the [International Monetary Fund]."

Western nations must not be too quick, however, to push mechanics of government like "a market state and elections" onto the Libyan people, Vandewalle warned.

"My hunch is that there needs to be a lot of prerequisites in place before Libya can go through any such process," he said. "We need to be sensitive to what Libya wants in terms of developing basic economic policies that will allow it to gradually open up its economy."

Beyond his involvement in the current political crisis, Vandewalle said he hopes to use his years of expertise to write a book about Libya "through the lens of how Qaddafi changed over the years."

"I would want to write about Libya as a unique political experiment on how an oil state and those in charge of an oil state try to create a political community, or more accurately, avoid the creation of a political community," Vandewalle said. "It would include a chapter on Qaddafi as a young revolutionary and a chapter on Qaddafi in the present reality and everything in between. The book would weave Libya since its inception into one coherent whole."

Vandewalle said his motivation for writing about Libya comes largely from a desire to "awaken the international community and policy makers."

"This is a country that will need an enormous amount of help in both constructing and reconstructing itself," he said. "I want to inform a larger audience and a policy-making audience of the larger political issues that we should be aware of as we start to think of post-Qaddafi Libya."

Alison Polton-Simon contributed to the reporting of this article.