Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, is recognized as one of the most knowledgeable students of Libya, and his A History of Modern Libya does not disappoint. His central thesis is that Libya never did the hard work of state-building and has paid a terrific price to this day because of this negligence. Vandewalle traces the root of Libya's affliction to the Ottoman period, where, as in many other places in the Arab world, the residents who lived in present-day Libya passively allowed their occupiers to assume responsibility for their governance. The Italians who followed showed little interest in state-building, unlike other colonizers such as the British. The postwar Libyan monarchy proved too weak and corrupt to build state institutions.
This set the stage for Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi, who Vandewalle shows manipulated this stateless system to keep adversaries off balance, and, in so doing, turned Libya into one of the most dysfunctional places on earth. Following a 1975 coup attempt and the subsequent publishing of The Green Book, Qadhafi ushered in a decade of complete upheaval: The entire Libyan government was disbanded and replaced by popular committees that attempted to include all of Libya's citizenry; revolutionary committees were established to expunge any ideological impurities and whip the nation into an ongoing frenzy; most private industry was either done away with or driven underground and replaced by inefficient state-owned supermarkets; revolutionary courts were set up throughout the country that eviscerated the rule of law.
A high point of the book is Vandewalle's description of Qadhafi's response to the lack of Libyan outrage at his near death from the U.S. bombing raid in 1986. According to Vandewalle, Qadhafi personally oversaw the destruction of Libya's main prison and the freeing of its political dissidents as he hurled epithets from a prison tower with a megaphone at members of his own government whom he had encouraged to imprison those very same dissidents.