WASHINGTON, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- It was surprise enough that one formerly revolutionary leader should have decided that President George W. Bush and Britain's Tony Blair were right, and that it was time to abandon dreams of acquiring weapons of mass destruction as an equalizer against Western power influence. It was stunning that the first convert should have been Libya's Muammar Qadaffi, who since the 1968 coup, remained an enigma to most outside observers.
His official biography is remarkably devoid of details about his early years -- but it always begins with "born in a desert tent near Surt."
I've always suspected that the constant mention of Surt is an attempt to identify Qaddafi with the nation's main source of wealth -- its oil fields -- which lie in and around Surt and were not discovered until 1959, but were obviously squandered until a proper Surtite could marshal their economic power, primarily by seizing everything the Brits and Americans had built there. (The only American company, by the way, that stood up to Qaddafi's nationalization of the oil fields was the privately held Hunt Oil of Texas. Nelson Bunker Hunt harassed Libya in every court in the world until the Colonel finally wrote him a check to get rid of him. Apparently Bunker and Muammar understand each other.)
What we do know is that Qaddafi had no special interest in being a soldier except as a means to an end. He seems to have been obsessed with revolution even when clad in knee breeches at the British-style Sabha prep school in Fezzan.
Following the example of his idol, Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser, he entered the Military Academy in Benghazi, where his first secret corps was formed and where he and his confederates took blood oaths to oust King Idris I.
As it turned out, it wasn't that big a deal. The 1969 coup is always described as simple and "bloodless." Idris was part of the discredited and all but forgotten Senoussi monarchy installed by the allies after World War II, so there was no way he could be seen by the people as anything but a stooge of foreign interests. His real battle came afterwards, when he had to defeat the older officers who helped him but thought 27 was a little young to be donning the Fearless Leader hat. It took him three more months to turn them out.
Libya has such a strange history -- with its shifting borders, Bedouin politics, dozens of foreign masters and lines redrawn in the sand (literally) -- that it has remained suspicious of all foreigners, even of their closest neighbors, Egyptians, Tunisians and Chadians.
Most African countries have had to deal with some sort of uprising against their former European colonialists, -- be they British, French, Dutch or Belgian -- but Libya is the only one to harbor everlasting hatred for Italian imperialists.
Libya remains, in fact, the site of one of Italy 's few foreign adventures, and a disastrous one at that. One of the first things commander-in-chief, Qaddafi, did in 1970 was to expel all the Italians that King Idris had failed to drive out 25 years earlier, including the ones that had hung on for three generations. (He even had the graves of their ancestors dug up and their bones disposed of.) He followed that performance by ousting the Jews, then closing the U.S. air base near Tripoli and the British barracks at Azizia. Inside those barracks today is Qaddafi's official tent, decorated on the inside with embroidered weavings of his famous sayings; on the outside, however, it is drab and unadorned, with a couple of picturesque camels tethered nearby for the desired effect on foreign visitors.
With the nation properly cleansed of pasta, blintzes, kidney pie and hamburgers, the Bedouin zealot then set out to become the kind of man only Lawrence of Arabia could appreciate. He believed in a true confederation of all Arab states, joined together under Islamic law in a union so strong they would become a third superpower. He was, in short, that most dangerous of dictators: the true believer. He set out his views in the Green Book (all three volumes of which are now conveniently available on Qaddafi''s personal website), and we should give the man credit for being one of the most concise prose stylists in the history of tyrannical lunacy. You can actually read the entire Green Book in half an afternoon, and, although Muammar would not like this characterization, most of it is Communism Lite.
He rails against communism, of course, because he was trying to adapt a socialist society to fit with sharia law, which wouldn't condone female bulldozer operators and quickie divorces. But for the most part, it 's an idiosyncratic blue-print for a sort of unwieldy socialist super-democracy, with everything managed by "popular congresses" (but not parties -- parties are evil) that come to a common agreement without electing anyone (because "representative democracy" is equally evil). Everything belongs to the people. Everybody gets universal social services. Nobody owns anything or makes more than his neighbor. The workers own the natural resources. As long as OPEC was strong and the nation had a $9,000 per capita income, this was all fine. When that fell to $2,000, of course, the system came apart at the seams.
But let's not dwell on that. Let's recall Qaddafi's glory years, the 1970s, when there was no country too small or too large (he sent bags of money to redneck presidential brother Billy Carter) for Qaddafi to get his hands dirty.
What 's strange about these years is that you can't discern an overarching purpose in any of it, except perhaps destabilizing the entire universe, like some villain in a James Bond movie.
Qaddafi was constantly trying to form Arab super-states by merging with Syria or Egypt or with Chad and Sudan, but then withdrawing and sometimes declaring war on his former allies when it became apparent that he couldn't be the leader. He was so disappointed in Egypt, home place of his spiritual mentor Nasser, that he built a 200-mile-long wall to protect Libya from what had become, overnight, an infidel country because of its acceptance of Israel. In the Iran-Iraq war, Qaddafi intervened on Iran's side, even though Libya's population is overwhelmingly Sunni. He broke off relations with Saudi Arabia over the "U.S. occupation" there, even though any plan for his pan-Arab dream relied on Saudi goodwill. He bought massive amounts of armaments from the Soviet Union, thereby betraying his Chechen comrades, and kept up a constant war of nerves with his MiGs playing chicken with American recon planes near the Libyan coast.
When oil was discovered in the Mediterranean, halfway between Libya and Malta, he declared that the territorial waters of Libya included everything up to 12 miles from the Maltese shore, a position that almost resulted in war. He invaded Chad in order to force it to become his friendly partner. He sent some dirty-tricks squads to Nigeria that caused an outbreak of violence, leaving 100 dead.
He supported resistance fighters and revolutionaries everywhere, no matter whose side they were on. To give you some idea, he funneled money and arms to Scottish revolutionaries.
Some of his revolutionary largesse seemed to fit in with his pan-Arab goals (the Moros of the Philippines, the Palestinians);others were just plain wacky: radical natives in South America, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, the Irish Republican Army, the Basques and the Kurds.
He had a special fondness for Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, as well as the Black Panthers, and he tried to give Farrakhan a billion dollars on the occasion of Farrakhan's receiving something called the Qaddafi Human Rights Award. (Don't laugh. Remember, Libya is the current chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in spite of holding the world record for longest imprisonment of a journalist: Abdullah Ali al-Sanussi-al-Darrat, jailed in 1973 and still caged -- place of confinement unknown.)
The United States blocked the billion, by the way.
What makes this all possible, of course, is oil. Without oil, Qaddafi would be one more wacky but ineffectual African dictator. As it is, he 's like an International Monetary Fund for illegitimate governments. He's apparently never met a secessionist he didn't like, funneling support to breakaway guerrillas in Chad, Eritrea, Lebanon, the Canary Islands, Wales, Egypt, Sudan, Corsica and Sardinia. He even gave his blessing to the American Jesus-freak movement, Children of God, which apparently passes muster on the strength of its antigovernment beliefs. (He's been officially declared a messiah by the Children of God, an honor he accepted reluctantly, apparently after being convinced it would help his Muslim missionary goals.)
Is Qaddafi a changed man? He recently turned 61, which happens to be the average life expectancy for a Libyan, and he doesn't seem so keen on murder in his declining years. He was never an indiscriminate assassin in the first place. Like the Mafia, all killings were kept in the family --people he thought had betrayed him in one way or another. His notorious intelligence services -- assassins who carried out hits in Rome, London, Athens, Beirut, Bonn and Milan -- had eliminated most of his chief political opponents by 1980. Most were shot, one was strangled and one was decapitated. The decapitation seems to be his only indulgence in Idi Amin-style vengeance. For the most part, he 's been, by dictator standards, a moderate blood-letter.
Of course, there's the widespread belief that he was responsible for the explosion that knocked Pan Am flight 103 out of the air over Lockerbie, Scotland, leaving 271 dead. Even though he's publicly apologized for it and turned over two men to international courts, he's never said he ordered it, and it's unlikely that he did. When you're supporting various terrorist cells in every nation on the planet, sooner or later one of them is going to do something that threatens your oil sales. Perhaps to make this point, he was the first Muslim leader to condemn Al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Irrespective of the conflict with America." he said, "it is a human duty to show sympathy with the American people and be with them at these horrifying and awesome events which are bound to awaken human conscience."
The statement was especially significant because it's been widely assumed that much of his grudge against Europe and the United States has been intensely personal. His grandfather was killed by an Italian colonist in 1911. His infant daughter was killed in a U.S. bombing raid on his personal residence in 1986. In the days immediately following, he expressed his hatred for President Reagan in several colorful ways and said it was legal to eat American soldiers since they had been revealed to be animals. He rarely speaks this way anymore -- perhaps because his country has just recently returned from the brink of economic collapse, perhaps because he doesn't have to. In Western marketing terms, "Qaddafi" is a mature brand, so high-concept that the word itself inspires allegiances and blind loyalty that doesn't need further proof of quality. He can afford, like Disney or Coca-Cola, to diversify without fear of losing his core business.
This doesn't mean he can't occasionally call for the saber and the musket, but it usually takes something on the order of an actual assassination attempt. Ever since 2,000 Libyan soldiers plotted to assassinate him in 1993 -- the biggest threat to his power he's seen so far -- Qaddafi has pretty routinely dealt with the various opposition figures who want to kill or depose him.
His crack troops, the Green Guard of the Revolution, handle the necessary formalities, if any arise. Qaddafi is avenging one serious assassination attempt every two years or so, plus the occasional bloody riot at a football game (a peculiarly Libyan form of social protest), and even a few foreign-financed jobs. (It now appears that the 1996 attempt to kill him was orchestrated by MI6, with help from Al-Qaida. Now that post-9/11 speech starts to make sense.)
Otherwise he's lost his flair for the dramatically brutal gesture. Gone are the days when he suggested torpedoing the Queen Elizabeth II as it carried Jews to Israel to celebrate that nation's 25th anniversary. Today Qaddafi contents himself with repeatedly resigning from office -- so the people can demand he return -- and making apocalyptic pronouncements. (The CIA is spreading AIDS worldwide. It 's the beginning of "The Age of Chaos." All armies will be destroyed and civilians will be taught to fight. The coming revolution will start inside America, where corporations will join with minorities to destroy the government. Soon world markets will end.) And fortunately for his international image, he remains eminently quotable: "Israel is nothing but a mirage something that does not exist."
In fact, his recent speeches and interviews (if you can call them interviews, considering that the questioners frequently address him as "Great leader") indicate that he's dwelling on ever subtler forms of worldwide disruption. One of his favorite words is "virus," which he uses in several ways, but the utility of computer viruses is obviously uppermost in his mind:
"Viruses today are much more stronger than cruise missiles." He openly gloated over the dotcom bust, and he recently proposed further destabilizing the Western economy by simply counterfeiting billions of dollars and euros. Is it just a coincidence that, since he started talking about it, the U.S. Treasury has been forced to change the designs of its currency, including, so far, the 100 and 20 and five dollar bills?
Meanwhile, all his friends from the 1969 Revolutionary Council have drifted away. Four have retired, one was killed in a car accident, another was killed in a coup attempt. Abdel Moneim Al-Huni joined the Libyan opposition in 1975 and survived a Qaddafi hit squad, then -- remarkably -- reconciled with the Colonel and is now Qaddafi's ambassador to the Arab League. The man considered Qaddafi's successor for many years, Major Abdel Salam Jallud, disappeared from power in the mid-1990s to devote his attention to business -- and he was the last of them.
Qaddafi's various sons all had their problems. Al-Saidi is a reckless and profligate man in his late 20s whose only passion is soccer. Muhammad, the eldest son by Qaddafi's first wife, is too shy for the job. Sayf Al-Islam, the third eldest son, has served as a Libyan envoy but reportedly hates politics, and he's been spending time in Vienna taking business courses at a college program run by Americans. Only Aisha, now 25,seems to relish Dad's job.
She's appeared on television with Nelson Mandela, soothed the nerves of Saddam Hussein during various crises and once slipped away from her 30 personal bodyguards at London's Dorchester Hotel to speak at Hyde Park's Speakers Corner. More important, she can use the word "privatization" with a straight face while blitzing European capitals, then become the perfect representative of a traditional Islamic household at home. It would be somehow very much like Qaddafi to try to create the first female head of an Arab state, and somehow amend the Green Book to allow it.
He doesn't refer much anymore to the Green Book, perhaps because its socialist principles are a little embarrassing in a country that became steadily poorer through the 1990s. In fact, he's started making a bid for business partners. At some point he started thinking about Libya's "1,000 miles of unspoiled beaches" and decided he needed some tourist hotels. (Kind of a long shot, since the country doesn't accept credit cards and has a permanent ban on alcohol and gambling.) He's also not ruling out the presence of some foreign banks in Tripoli. But he draws the line at joining the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, both of which he despises. For him, that would be like Disney making pornography or Coca-Cola bottling whiskey: the brand is still strong, but you can't destroy the franchise. The Q-Man may be a little softer in his old age, but he's not so insane as to begin doing what appears to be sane.
(A fuller version of this article appears in the new issue of The National Interest quarterly, published this week, as one of its regular 'Despot Watch' features.)
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