The Big Question: He may be the subject of a new opera, but is Gaddafi still a global pariah?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Didn't he used to be Public Enemy No 1?

Certainly there was a time when no self-respecting opera company would have thought of commissioning a work with a title like Gaddafi: A Living Myth as the English National Opera has done. In the 1970s and 1980s, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was widely regarded as, to use Ronald Reagan's phrase, "the mad dog of the Middle East".

Under the banner of a revolutionary creed he called Islamic Socialism, the Libyan leader forged an alliance with the Soviet Union - becoming the first leader outside the Soviet bloc to receive the supersonic MiG-25 combat fighters - and used his country's oil wealth to back a host of revolutionary causes all around the globe. These included: the IRA, the Japanese Red Army, the Basque separatists ETA, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, Kurdish separatists, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam. He reportedly financed the Black September Movement's massacre at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics and was said to have bankrolled Carlos the Jackal. There were even claims that during the 1984 miners' strike he tried to fund Arthur Scargill, an allegation the NUM leader denied.

So how big a threat was he?

In part it was Gaddafi's ideology, outlined in his Little Green Book, published in 1976, that the West found suspect. His Islamic socialism involved a whole structure of peoples' committees and popular congresses which was reminiscent of the Soviet system (only more chaotic). And he supported the revolutionary theocracy in Iran in its 1980-88 war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, whom the West backed.

But there was no doubting his malign impact. He sent hit squads to murder Libyan dissidents abroad, and in 1984 a British policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, was shot outside the Libyan Embassy in London while policing an anti-Gaddafi demonstration. The shots appeared to come from inside the embassy, but thanks to diplomatic immunity the culprits were repatriated. Three years later, security services intercepted a vessel named the Eksund carrying a large consignment of Libyan arms and explosives to the IRA.

The West took all this very seriously. There were at least a dozen attempts on Gaddafi's life, including one said to involve British intelligence. In 1986 Ronald Reagan ordered a bombing raid on the Libyan leader's home in Tripoli. Sixty people died, including Gaddafi's adopted daughter - though the Americans claimed the child was adopted posthumously by Gaddafi.

Wasn't Gaddafi behind Lockerbie?

Two Libyan intelligence agents were convicted of the blowing up of a Pan Am plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. For years Gaddafi denied state involvement. It was a full 15 years after the bombing that Libya formally accepted responsibility, and Gaddafi agreed to pay compensation of up to $2.7bn - or up to $10mn each - to the families of the 270 victims.

So what changed?

Gaddafi has always been odd. He dresses in flamboyant robes and receives visiting heads of state in a Bedouin tent. His personal bodyguard are an Amazonian corps of women, all martial arts experts. He does things like ordering the population of Tripoli to paint their rooftops green so that the desert city appears lush to visitors flying in.

His politics are eccentric too. For years he was an advocate of pan-Arabism. Then he also turned to a pan-Islamism. His solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem is a bi-national single state he calls Isratine. The trouble is that no one else buys into his ideas, which is why he drops them and dreams up another.

But serious political realities are what have forced him to change. The fall of the Soviet Union robbed him of his main international ally. A decade of economic sanctions over Lockerbie prevented Libya importing oilfield technology. And the price of oil has fallen. Gaddafi's domestic popularity is bought with oil revenues. But oil prices dropped significantly during the 1990s, exacerbating a deepening crisis caused by poor economic policies and mismanagement. The only way out was to seek rapprochement with Washington.

Didn't the invasion of Iraq make him fear Libya could be next?

That's what George Bush would like everyone to think. The US President trumpeted the fact that after the fall of Saddam the Libyan leader announced he too had weapons of mass destruction, but was willing to allow international inspectors to dismantle them. In fact Gaddafi was only repeating an offer he had made four years earlier to Bill Clinton. And two years before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 Gaddafi had pledged Libya's commitment to fighting al-Qa'ida .

So he's a model of sobriety now?

Not exactly. He still does peculiar things. He once took charge of a bulldozer to ram the gates of a Tripoli prison to release 400 inmates (presumably he could have just asked for the doors to be opened). A year later he put five Bulgarian nurses, working at a Benghazi hospital, on trial - accusing them of wilfully infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV. In 2002 he bought a 7.5 per cent share in the Italian football club Juventus and that year he hosted the world's first internet beauty pageant.

So has he just mellowed with age?

In part, it's just that the West has bigger contemporary bogeymen, like Iran's wild president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But certainly Gaddafi appears less of a menace. In the immediate aftermath of 11 September, he made one of the first, and firmest, Muslim denunciations of al-Qa'ida. While still campaigning for a fair deal for Palestine, he has withdrawn support for Palestinian "rejectionist" groups. He is trying to assist with conflict resolution in Africa, pouring large amounts of money into sub-Saharan states.

His rehabilitation is such that in 2004 Tony Blair became one of the first western leaders in decades to visit Libya and publicly meet Gaddafi. The Libyan leader smiled, but turned the sole of his shoe - a serious personal insult in Arab culture - to Mr Blair. Colonel Gaddafi is determined, it seems, to remain ambiguous to the end.

Is Colonel Gaddafi still a menace?

Yes...

* His acceptance of responsibility for Lockerbie was half-hearted, and prised from him by sanctions, not a true change of heart

* A year later he put five Bulgarian nurses, working at a Benghazi hospital, on trial, accusing them of wilfully infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV

* He is still eccentric and unpredictable

No...

* He has allowed international inspectors in to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction

* He has pledged Libya's commitment to fighting al-Qa'ida and assisting in the 'war on terror'

* He has renounced his support for anti-Western liberation movements and 'rejectionist' groups in Palestine

Comments