Mad dog of the Middle East

The regime of Muammar Gaddafi, who has been ruler of oil-rich Libya since leading a bloodless coup in 1969, appears to be in its death
throes. Picture: AP Source: AP
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
The Australian
February 23, 2011

COLONEL Muammar Gaddafi is the most flamboyantly weird dictator in the modern world, not as ruthlessly sadistic as North Korea's Kim Jong-il, not quite as nuttily paranoid as Burma's Than Shwe, nor indeed as dedicated a mass murderer as was Iraq's Saddam Hussein, but beyond measure the fruitiest nut case on top of any national government anywhere.

It is perhaps wrong to joke about Gaddafi when the convulsive death throes of his regime are resulting in hundreds of lives lost. And in his long, tumultuous and at times terrible rule Gaddafi has confronted Western policy-makers with dilemmas over the most deadly serious of issues: nuclear proliferation, state-sponsored global terrorism, the widespread suppression of human rights, the diplomacy and raw power of oil.

Yet the man is a buffoon, a preening, ludicrous, Evelyn Waugh caricature of an African dictator, not only a scourge but an embarrassment to all Libyans and to the wider Arab culture. Finally, it seems, his countrymen are fed up.

The dictator can no longer keep them isolated from the currents flowing through the outside world. They know it doesn't have to be like this.

It is not as if Gaddafi has become more eccentric as he has grown older. He seems to have sprung fully formed from the womb as a narcissistic dictator, with a heavy dash of Walter Mitty dreamer. The son of a modestly affluent Bedouin family, Gaddafi was by all accounts a talented young military officer, sent for training in Greece. He always had the will to power and began plotting coups while still studying.

He was 27 in 1969 when Libya's King Idris made the mistake of going overseas. Gaddafi, a mere captain at the time, led a bloodless coup. For a time he called himself prime minister. But right from the start his rule was personal, capricious and often deadly. He was popular early because he deployed the rhetoric of anti-colonialism. Libya is a classically artificial state born of colonialism and decolonisation. Much of it was under Ottoman rule from the 16th century. Then it suffered Italian colonial rule. But it was never really a nation; rather a collection of fractious tribes and clans. As in much of the Middle East, the clan is more important in Libya than the nation.

But Libyans were united in their resentment of Italian rule. Gaddafi expelled Italians living in Libya in 1970. Power went to Gaddafi's head quickly. Libya is a small country; even today its population is little over six million. But it has the largest oil and gas reserves in North Africa. It was a deadly combination: an immature, impetuous, ego-maniacal and slightly mad dictator and lots and lots and lots of money.

In 1972 Gaddafi gave up the title of prime minister and instead adopted, Idi Amin-like, a bewildering array of honorifics and ceremonial titles, chief among them the Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution.

He was drawn both to socialism and pan-Arab nationalism. He styled himself the new Che Guevara. Throughout the 1970s and 80s Gaddafi tried to have a global geo-strategic impact. His weapons were money, terrorism and ideology.

Though claiming to be a socialist, Gaddafi was not a Marxist. At times he talked of Islamic socialism. Like so many other ego-driven revolutionary leaders, he authored his own manifesto, the incoherent Green Book. He subsidised extreme left-wing, mainly Trotskyite, grouplets in the West, including Australia, in exchange for their paying homage to the Green Book and his ideas.

He styled himself a revolutionary. The normal mechanisms of a modern state were suspended in Libya, which under Gaddafi claimed to have implemented a direct people's rule. This was given life through various local people's committees. Though Libya was under Gaddafi's absolute rule, and these committees were chosen and shaped by him, they nonetheless provided a method of consulting and co-opting the tribal and clan leaders who remained important figures in Libyan life.

Gaddafi tried to export this farrago of fraudulent direct participation into Libya's international dealings. For a time Libya's embassies were re-styled as People's Bureaus. There was a touch of Mao's Cultural Revolution in Gaddafi's approach and a touch, too, of the ideas of permanent revolution. But it was all really a sham, a pretext for Gaddafi's assumption of absolute power and a stage set for the endless psycho-drama of his outsize ego.

In the past 10 years it has been the buffoon aspect of Gaddafi that has claimed most attention. Any dictator who assembles a personal bodyguard of 40 female virgins, some of them from Ethiopia, chosen personally by Gaddafi, is going to attract attention. In 2009 he paid a reconciliation visit to Rome and assembled 500 Italian prostitutes, all of them above a minimum height, so he could give them a lecture and personally distribute to them copies of the Koran.

He had a love of his luxury Bedouin tent and took it with him to Europe and asked to take it to the US. Then there were the outfits. Good grief, those outfits. As a dictator Gaddafi had the dress sense of Lady Gaga under the influence of Michael Jackson. He favoured powder blue and flowing robes, but occasionally went for earth colours. Looking back at Gaddafi's photo file is to see the decline that besets all dictators. The young Gaddafi is slim and manly and looks like the army officer he was, the old Gaddafi is puffy and dissolute, overly made up and spilling out of control.

But Gaddafi is not just a figure of the grotesque and the bizarre. In the 70s, 80s and 90s he was a serious geo-strategic problem. And in his support of global terrorism, his hatred of Israel and the West, and his quest always for a transnational ideology, he pre-figured much of al-Qa'ida and the later jihadist movement.

Gaddafi set Libya up as the land of revolution, where all groups that could stitch their violent psycho-pathologies into a narrative of anti-colonialism were given succour. He supported revolutionaries in Colombia, as he supported Carlos the Jackal in Venezuela. He sent arms to the IRA and hosted training camps for them. He invested heavily in Palestinian terrorism; his preferred terrorist was Abu Nidal. He also interfered in Lebanese politics.

But he most enraged the West with the acts of terrorism his own agents or troops carried out. In 1984, Libyan diplomats firing from within the Libyan embassy in London killed an English policewoman, Constable Yvonne Fletcher, who was helping to police a demonstration at the embassy. This led to the breaking of diplomatic relations between Britain and Libya, but the British government at the time was criticised for accepting that the diplomats who committed the murder were protected by diplomatic immunity. They went home and were never charged.

In 1986 a disco was bombed in Berlin. The disco was known to be popular with American soldiers, two of whom were killed in the bombing, as well as a civilian. The Americans discovered Gaddafi was behind it. But he had picked the wrong American president to trifle with. Ronald Reagan labelled Gaddafi "the mad dog of the Middle East". The normally urbane and unflappable US secretary of state George Schultz declared: "You've had it, pal."

Reagan bombed Tripoli and Gaddafi's tent. Gaddafi went quiet for a while, as he was always inclined to when he thought the Americans were seriously annoyed with him. But 1988 saw Gaddafi's single worst terrorist outrage. Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie. All 259 people on board were killed and 11 died on the ground. It transpired this act of terrorism had been ordered by Gaddafi and for much of the 90s his economy, though insanely rich with oil, was crippled by Western sanctions.

Eventually Gaddafi decided he wanted an end to these sanctions. Influenced a little perhaps by the relatively reformist tendencies of his second son, Sief Gaddafi, he understood it was better to get back into some kind of working relationship with the West. Gaddafi's government finally admitted liability for the Lockerbie tragedy and paid $US3 billion in compensation for the victims' families. It also allowed a Libyan agent, Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, to stand trial and go to prison for the bombing.

Like most Arab leaders, Gaddafi was scared of the Americans when they invaded Iraq in 2003. He was also scared of al-Qa'ida. Although Gaddafi's dreams of worldwide revolution, and his tactic of international terrorism, prefigured al-Qa'ida, he knew Islamism would threaten his regime. His political narrative, such as it was, was based in anti-imperialism.

This rhetoric had become anachronistic by the 1990s; by the 2000s it was positively antique. And it was no longer resonating with anybody. Radicalism in the Middle East now found expression in Islamism, which rejected national dictators such as Gaddafi, and saw in the decadence of his lifestyle and family only a repugnant echo of the worst features of the West. Though Gaddafi had championed his own version of Islamic socialism and pan-Arabism, the harsh, strict disciplines of al-Qa'ida and Wahabi Islam, as understood by genuine fanatics and zealots, had no place for the likes of him.

He decided to pivot strategically and sent envoys to quietly ask the Americans what would be necessary to get him restored to respectability. The most dramatic move came when Gaddafi announced Libya had indeed had a nuclear weapons program, and other weapons of mass destruction programs as well, but was giving them up and opening the country's facilities to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Bush administration removed Gaddafi from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and removed the sanctions from him. But he was still more than capable of playing with the heads of Western leaders. He cajoled and blackmailed the British government into releasing the Lockerbie bomber, allegedly on medical grounds, who returned to a hero's welcome in Libya. The new British government of David Cameron has denounced this as an immoral and seedy deal.

As with many dictators, the nearest thing to politics in Libya was a dispute between some of Gaddafi's seven sons. Seif was held up as the moderniser and liberaliser of Libya, though this week it was Seif who went on state television threatening carnage and destruction if the demonstrators did not desist. Gaddafi was indulgent of his wayward sons, threatening all kinds of retribution against Switzerland because it briefly imprisoned another son, Hannibal, for beating up servants.

The breadth and depth of Libyan opposition to Gaddafi have been breathtaking these past few days. It may be, as so often has happened before, that the West overestimated the shrewdness of this dictator. The return of the Lockerbie bomber was said to have boosted Gaddafi's prestige among his own people. It seems it didn't boost it too much. The Libyans, like so many who labour under dictatorship, knew all too well the foolishness and grief their demagogic leader caused them.

In the end, deadly, vicious and unpredictable as Gaddafi was, his flamboyant theatricality, it seems, fooled no one but himself. He must be a salutary sight for dictators everywhere.

* * *


Postscript: African Union can do better
The Australian
Bruce Loudon
August 31, 2011

AFRICAN solutions for African problems, they boast. But when, last week, Africa's premier representative body, the African Union, summoned its 54 member states to an emergency summit on the continent's worst famine in 60 years, just four — that's right, four — heads of government bothered to turn up.

Of those, one was the prime minister of Ethiopia, where the AU is based. The summit was in Addis Ababa so he didn't have far to go. Another was from neighbouring Somalia, where tens of thousands of people have died and 12 million people are in dire need. The third was from Equatorial Guinea, whose despotic ruler is the current AU chairman, so he had to be there. And the fourth was from the postage-stamp-sized Djibouti, which is also in desperate need of help. There was more embarrassment, too, when it was revealed that the entire African continent has answered the global UN appeal for $2.4 billion to deal with the crisis in the Horn of Africa by pledging a paltry $50 million. This is in addition to $300m pledged by the Tunis-based African Development Bank for long-term projects in the Horn of Africa. Since the bank's funds come substantially from the US and Europe, it's hard to see that as Africa rallying to the call.

Contrasting with this poor response to the famine, the US has pledged more than $500m, the EU $228m and individual European countries $630m. Australia has chipped in with $11.2m.

So why the apparent lack of interest and parsimony within the AU? For stingy it surely is. Even wealthy South Africa, its economy accounting for a third of Africa's GDP, has pledged only $1m, while oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa's wealthiest nations (though much of its wealth is in the hands of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and his family), has managed only $2.8m.

Nicanor Sabula, spokesman for Africans 4 Africa, described the lack of interest as "disappointing and embarrassing", adding: "It doesn't send a very good message to the people of Africa. People will be very disappointed."

He's right. Across Africa, leaders plead poverty when asked to help. Though some African economies are experiencing impressive growth, when it comes to helping out, they rush for the exits.

As much as its failure over the famine reflects poorly on the AU, so, too, does its persistent bungling over the uprising in Libya and the removal of "Sugar Daddy" Muammar Gaddafi. A tool of Gaddafi's megalomaniacal dreams for a US of Africa, the AU, to the end, sought to mediate to ensure the survival of the tyrant and even now is insisting that, as a body, it will not recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government.

"Libya should work towards forming an all-inclusive transitional government," AU leaders said in a statement long after it was clear Gaddafi was doomed. "There is still fighting going on," said South African President Jacob Zuma. "So we can't therefore stand and say this is the legitimate (authority) now."

Really? Even when many individual Africa countries, including giants like Nigeria, have recognised the NTC?

The reason lies in the profound influence Gaddafi wielded first over the old Organisation of African Unity and then, after it was founded with his money and in his birthplace of Sirte, over its successor organisation, the AU. No African regime was too terrible for Gaddafi to seduce and support. He identified with kindred spirits. Shamelessly, he used his vast oil wealth to assist the likes of Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe while seeking to subvert those regimes he didn't like. Even some of Africa's most respected leaders, like Nelson Mandela, were beguiled by him. For years Gaddafi was the malign influence that effectively ran the AU.

Hence the AU's desperate attempts to shore him up, to save him, even as Libya's oppressed people rose up against him.

Together, there is little doubt the failure to do much about the famine and the bungling over Libya have done little for the prestige of a body that has ambitions to be the African version of the EU.

African solutions for African problems? It's a goal for which many ambitiously strive as they seek a greater role for Africa on the global stage, but it's ambition on which the AU is going to have to do far better than it has on the Horn of Africa famine and Libya if it is ever going to be achieved.

** End of report