issue 161 - July 1986
The man we love to hate
The 'bad guy' image of Libya's Muammar Qadhafi has been drummed
into us for so long it's accepted as a matter of faith. But is the story really
that simple? Diana Johnstone looks behind the media hype and asks how the
Libyan leader was transformed into 'the world's most dangerous man.'
THE fight against international terrorism has reduced world affairs to the level of an old B movie: goodies, baddies and a swarthy villain. So in a revived version of The Shores of Tripoli, playing opposite Ronald Reagan is a relative newcomer, Muammar Qadhafi. Although younger and more handsome than Reagan, the Libyan leader is recognized by US audiences as the obvious bad guy. Americans hate Qadhafi so much that the vast majority applauded enthusiastically when US jets bombed his home in Tripoli, killing innocent men, women and children.
If this movie echoes history it is in the familiar arrogance of the white sheriff who doesn't need even to try to understand the culture of the 'redskin' he intends to massacre. Americans display an atavistic readiness to believe in the unmitigated evil, or craziness, of a person from a strange culture - along with a total lack of friendly curiosity. Demonizing is easy.
But easy or not it has taken years of effort to get people from Ronald Reagan to little boys in 'Smash Qadhafi' T-shirts, to thirst for Libyan blood. It has taken a lot of leaks from unidentified intelligence sources, and a lot of media hype, to transform the young Bedouin revolutionary leader into 'the most dangerous man in the world'. This has been accomplished despite the fact that, at least until the time of the Libyan bombing, there was absolutely no solid evidence linking Qadhafi to the shocking crimes of international terrorism.
Why then has Qadhafi been cast as Reagan's 'mad dog of the Middle East'? There are a whole host of reasons, not all of them immediately evident to the casual newspaper reader. Qadhafi dreams of inspiring the very sort of Third World revolutions the Reagan administration wants to defuse. The illusions of one match the illusions of the other - in reverse. But the dreams do overlap in at least one way. Both leaders believe there is an essential unity between very diverse struggles, from the Palestinians to the Kanaks of New Caledonia - with Qadhafi somehow supporting them all.
Qadhafi's support for Palestinian radicals, as with his support for national liberation movements in general, is largely rhetorical. But it is enough to make him a suitable target for the vast propaganda campaign which identifies Palestinians with every sort of global violence in the great campaign against international terrorism.
Muammar Qadhafi was only 27 years old when his group of idealistic young officers overthrew the corrupt regime of King Idris on September 1, 1969. His desert people, guided by the Koran and tribal customs, had no experience of modern statecraft. The country had been a loosely governed province of the Ottoman Empire. Then the Turks finally withdrew and Italy undertook a long conquest that decimated the population.
Like his idol, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Qadhafi is a fervent Arab nationalist. After World War II Libya was an independent, nominally Italian colony. But in reality it was controlled by British and American oil companies. The first thing Qadhafi's revolution did was to close the five US military bases on Libyan soil.
When Nasser died in 1970 the young Libyan felt called upon to carry on his struggle for unity of the Arab world. This quickly brought him into conflict with the Egyptian leader's successor Anwar Sadat, who was set to scrap Nasser's policy and cut a deal with Israel and the United States.
Qadhafi tried to forestall this by offering to merge Egypt and Libya (and Libyan oil) in a single Arab state - which Egypt, with its much greater population and stronger culture would obviously have dominated. Annoyed by this idealistic distraction from his realistic projects, Sadat began to spread the word that Qadhafi was 'crazy'. West Germany's Helmut Schmidt candidly admits that Sadat's slander dissuaded him from ever meeting the Libyan leader.
Qadhafi's capacity to infuriate governments the US considers its main allies in Africa have put him in hot water with Washington. His support for the Palestinians (not very effective, but probably more principled and disinterested than any other Arab state) made him an enemy of Israel. His more active support of African liberation movements has won him the enmity of both South Africa and France. The Pretoria regime accuses Libya of training African National Congress 'terrorists', while the French worry about his influence on African movements opposed to French domination of the Sahel states.
On the other hand Soviet support for the unpredictable desert visionary is lukewarm. All in all a vulnerable target - an annoying little guy to pick on. As conservative US columnist William F. Buckley summed it up last January: 'We do not declare war against the Soviet Union because we cannot hope to win against the Soviet Union. Libya is different.'
Most of all Qadhafi appears vulnerable because of his own naivete. By using his nation's oil revenues to provide modern homes and education, banning ostentatious wealth and preaching (and practising) virtuous simplicity, Gaddafi has alienated the old rich elite and driven many into exile.
American diplomats have a habit of believing such disgruntled critics when they claim to speak for the 'people' who are itching to overthrow the 'dictator'. What could seem more grotesque to habitues of diplomatic dinner parties than an unworldly Bedouin insisting that his country be called 'the Jamahiriya' (something to do with people's power) who has published his thoughts in a little Green Book? It is both the force and weakness of Qadhafi's naivete to be unaware of his own limits. The Libyan leader is not an Islamic fanatic, as he is portrayed, but rather a visionary trying to work his traditional values into a modern secular code. He calls his political views the 'Third Universal Theory', following democracy and socialism. The Jamahiriya is run by People's Committees. This direct democracy cannot be overthrown, says Qadhafi, because the government is the people.
The Reagan administration obviously thinks otherwise. The great confusion of such a revolution in a young country thrust by its oil wealth into a strange modern world has made Libya appear easy to infiltrate, and tempting to manipulate or destabilize.
Would it have been possible to take a friendly approach? A few Western leaders tried, The former Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky invited Qadhafi to Vienna. And Italy's experienced Christian Democratic foreign minister, Giulio Andreotti, visited Qadhafi. But he was never able to have Qadhafi visit Italy, despite the millions of dollars Libya invested in FIAT. Intelligence agents frightened Italy's credulous old President, Sandro Pertini, with a wild report that Qadhafi had sent agents to assassinate him. Such rumours were always floated through 'intelligence sources' to responsive journalists whenever Qadhafi tried to open friendly dialogue. Kreisky and Andreotti were attacked in the media. Doors slammed shut. The West was not allowed to meet Qadhafi, nor was Qadhafi allowed to learn about the West.
There may have been a time when the US was more interested in manipulating Qadhafi than in overthrowing him. He was anti-communist. His backing of anti-French rebels in Africa could help America's influence in that part of the world. But a secret study under the administration of ex-President Jimmy Carter concluded he was 'not controllable.' And indeed, how do you control someone who is not materially greedy, who is satisfied to live in a tent?
In 1979 the CIA finally got together with its French equivalent (SDECE) and the Egyptian secret services to back a plot of exiles and officers to overthrow the revolutionary regime. This caused a major upheaval in Libya's foreign relations. Angry crowds attacked the French and American embassies in Tripoli. Fearing that Libyan diplomats could be bought by foreign intelligence agencies, Qadhafi extended the revolution to foreign capitals, replacing embassies with People's Bureaux. Libyan internal violence thus erupted abroad. Nine Libyan exiles were murdered in Western cities by Qadhafi supporters. The intelligence services that had failed in stimulating a coup d'etat recuperated their losses by hyping these crimes into 'international terrorism'.
The last and worst scene in this battle occurred in London on April 17 1984, when Libyans of the People's Committee inside the embassy fired on anti-Qadhafi Libyans demonstrating outside, wounding ten of them and accidentally killing an English policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher. This was the worst self-inflicted catastrophe to the Libyan image in the West.
But it was already terrible. As far back as July 20, 1981 a Newsweek cover proclaimed 'QADHAFI: The most dangerous man in the world?' Later that year it was discovered that a hit squad was on its way to assassinate President Reagan - sent by Qadhafi of course. Israel intelligence supplied juicy fictional details, avidly lapped up and passed on by Western journalists. The story subsequently collapsed but the damage was done.
Now almost any misfortune can be blamed on Qadhafi. Even the TV show Dynasty had Libya rather than AIDS kill off the Rock Hudson character. In March 1984, Sudan's President Gaafar Nimeiry was in desperate need of US military aid to put down a revolt by Christians and Animists against his decision to apply Islamic law to the whole country. So what did he do? According to a report in The Times of London he bombed his own city of Omdurman (choosing the house of a political opponent as target) and blamed Qadhafi. US military aid followed quickly.
But Nimeiry fell anyway. And Sudan moved away from the US and closer to Libya. In fact in most of the Third World people know Qadhafi i is not the cause of 'international terrorism'. In the Middle East people understand the Palestinians who attacked Rome and Vienna airports were driven by their own despair, not by Qadhafi. In Tunisia and Egypt, the most pro Western of Arab countries, indignation is growing at what is seen as persecution of Qadhafi and Libya. Reagan's bombs are helping to unite the Arabs.
The dominant Western approach (led by the US) seems to be to goad people of different cultures into terrorism - and then use them as targets in a crude propaganda war. Can this lead to anything other than more hate and violence?
Diana Johnstone is European Editor for In These Times and a long-time Libya watcher.