Libya: forgive and forget

Andrew Mueller
15 May 2006

If Saddam Hussein's Baghdad cell is equipped with a television which receives CNN, there must be moments at which he suspects his American captors of broadcasting bogus stories as part of a psy-ops campaign to discombobulate him further. The announcement by United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice on 15 May 2006 that the US is to restore full diplomatic relations with Libya must seem, to the former Iraqi despot, clinching and crushing proof of the world's unfairness.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Libya's dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was routinely – and not unreasonably – called all the names that Saddam was taunted with in the build-up to his overthrow by America: tyrant, terrorist, threat to all we held dear. Now, Saddam is enduring the fair trial he has been permitted prior to his hanging, while Gaddafi is not only enjoying his thirty-seventh year of unchallenged rule, but is preparing to accept the credentials of an ambassador from Washington.

When I visited Tripoli in January 2006, it was noticeable that in just about all the pictures of Gaddafi that dominate the public spaces of the Libyan capital, the colonel was smiling, beaming the triumphant grin of a man who has got away with it, and well he might. Colonel Gaddafi may be crazy – any number of his pronouncements, and outfits, may be advanced as evidence for this assertion – but he clearly isn't stupid. The question is whether the world is being either or both in allowing him back in from the cold.

Outside the circle

Immediately following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, George W Bush promulgated what has come to be called the "Bush doctrine", announcing that the US would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them." On 20 September, Bush told a joint session of Congress: "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." At that time, it would have seemed inconceivable that either of these declarations could, less than five years down the track, amount to good news for Colonel Gaddafi, of all people.

No serving head of state had waged such extensive irregular war against America and its allies. Under Gaddafi, Libya and/or its agents had armed and/or funded the IRA and other terrorist groups from Palestine to the Philippines, shot dead a female police officer in St James's Square in London, blown up at least two civilian airliners (a Pan Am 747 over the town of Lockerbie in Scotland in December 1998, killing all 259 people on board and another eleven on the ground; and a UTA DC-10 over Niger in September 1989, killing 170 passengers) and bombed a Berlin nightclub frequented by American soldiers in April 1986. It was in response to the latter attack that sixty-six American aircraft, many launched from British bases, struck targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, killing at least 100 people, including Colonel Gaddafi's adopted daughter.

Whatever one's views of Colonel Gaddafi or George W Bush, the rapprochement between their two countries is excellent news on a number of levels. For Libyans, isolated and impoverished for decades by economic sanctions and diplomatic opprobrium, it offers reconnection with a world they've badly missed; in this respect, my visit to Tripoli reminded me very much of visiting Saddam Hussein's Baghdad and Slobodan Milosevic's Belgrade in 2000, all conversations with locals dominated by a wistful sense that time, and opportunity, were passing by.

For the western world, it would appear to herald the taming of a once formidable bête noire. Libya, which had already accepted responsibility for Lockerbie, and for the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, formally renounced terrorism in August 2003, and later the same year announced the abandonment of its WMD programmes (Libya is also believed to have grassed up the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan, who had also been touting his expertise to Iran and North Korea). And, of course, neither Libyans nor non-Libyans will have failed to consider the massive, under-exploited wealth beneath the country's deserts – Libya is estimated to have the ninth-largest oil reserves on earth.

Also by Andrew Mueller in openDemocracy:

"Don’t stop the war"
(March 2005)

"Taiwan in a Chinese overture" (May 2005)

"'Guerrillas without guns': Albania's activism festival" (June 2005)

"Recognise us! The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation"
(July 2005)

"Abkhazian futures"
(August 2005)

"Arrested in southern Cameroon"
(November 2005)

"'Getting in the way': Christian peacemakers from the West Bank to Iraq" (December 2005)

Inside the tent

The interesting question is whether Libya's renewal of relations with the US is a thundering endorsement of recent American policy in the middle east, or makes a thorough mockery of it. It could, certainly, look like a partial vindication of the invasion of Iraq – that the toppling of one dictator has frightened another into line. There is something to be said for this. One shopkeeper I spoke to in Tripoli told me that, as American tanks charged towards Baghdad in March 2003, large numbers of posters of Gaddafi were removed from roadsides and buildings overnight. "Perhaps", whispered the shopkeeper (and in Tripoli everyone whispers the colonel's name), "he thought he'd be next."

However, Libya's acquiescence could also be spun as proof that rogue states can be brought to heel by means other than wholesale military intervention. If one is willing to do business with Colonel Gaddafi – and in March 2004, Tony Blair flew all the way to Gaddafi's Bedouin marquee outside Tripoli to shake the hand of this accessory to the murder of scores of British citizens – there is no reason to affect revulsion at doing it with someone like Saddam Hussein.

That said, Gaddafi's son and likely heir, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, is a rather more promising figure than either of Saddam's unlamented progeny, and this may also be a factor in the recent thinking of Washington and London.

Saif Gaddafi, who I interviewed in London in 2002, is a western-educated, western-leaning moderate who it is almost possible to imagine allowing Libya's people to one day do crazy things like vote, read a proper newspaper or express an opinion critical of the government. It would have been nice, and perhaps even feasible, when George W Bush unveiled his post-9/11 foreign policy, for the world's democracies to announce that they were done for good with dealing with malevolent human-rights black holes like Libya.

For now, though, to borrow the apposite quip Lyndon B Johnson made when asked to justify his retention of the odious J Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI, Washington seems to have decided that they would prefer Gaddafi inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData